Riding the 350-Mile-Long DC-to-Pittsburgh “Autobahn for Bicycles”

6730b4f73270547e42ff9c8e25647ab5Germany’s new “Bicyclebahn” was unveiled this week, to rave internet reviews – what could be better than a car-free, 60 mile long bicycle superhighway connecting major cities? We should build something like that here in the United States, you probably said. But what if I told you one already existed, right here in DC?

Taking the Great Allegheny Passage from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD, and then the C&O Canal towpath trail from Cumberland to DC, you can ride from Pittsburgh to Washington DC over 335 miles of (nearly) unbroken bike trails. The trail – which took twenty years and $80 million to build – follows the path of several now-removed railroads, so it’s very scenic and isolated, winding through the woods and mountains. It’s just you, your bike, and nature, but I got bad news for you: nature and bicycling are both boring.

I rode the trail one September a few years ago, during one of my periodic physical fitness manias. I’d flown to Pittsburgh to visit a friend from college, and my girlfriend and I decided to buy mountain bikes on Craigslist and bike back down to DC. We started south on a warm Monday morning, with a plan to do sixty miles that day. We banged out the sixty miles and then, with a supreme effort, went for forty more. At least that’s what my legs felt like. But when I asked my girlfriend how far we’d gone so far, she looked at the map and said, “oh, about two and a half miles.”

That’s the thing about bicycling. It’s tiring. I ride my bike around DC, of course, but when you go from Columbia Heights to U Street, you can literally pedal, like, once per block. Riding the crushed limestone trail – much of which is subtly but unmistakably uphill – you have to pedal constantly.

“Use a lower gear,” my girlfriend said, when she noticed how red my face was getting.

But because I’m cheap, I’d bought the cheapest used mountain bike on Craigslist, and when I tried to downshift, the chain came off the bike entirely. We stopped and as I threaded it back onto the gears, I had an idea.

“They should make a two-wheeled vehicle that’s propelled by, like, a motor, instead of your muscles,” I said to my girlfriend. “That would be way less tiring to ride. Just have the motor connected to the wheels and all you have to do is point it where you want to go. That’s a million dollar idea. Maybe even have a four wheeled version that’s more stable, and you could have a roof and windows and even a stereo system, so it’s like a little house on wheels that you could ride around in. Someone should invent that.”

I don’t think she thought these were very good ideas, because she just looked at me and shook her head.

We got back on the trail and rode for what felt like eight years, but was only about two hours, before we stopped for lunch in a little town called West Newton. I was starving, so when my food finally came, it was disappointing to find that my hands no longer worked. What I mean is, after hours of anxiously clutching my handlebars and brake levers, my hands had become semi-frozen in a half-clenched claw position. I felt like they needed to be soaked in warm water to regain their flexibility, like old leather goods. It took me about ten minutes to eat a french fry.

After lunch, we commenced riding south. The leaves had started to turn, and I tried to appreciate them, but leaves are sort of like superhero movies; if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Bicycling is pretty boring;  the hardest part of winning the Tour de France is probably just staying interested. I think those guys all started doing drugs for the same reason Midwestern high schoolers do them – they’re bored out of their minds.  I spent most of the afternoon choosing trees up ahead and saying to myself, “okay, when I reach that tree, I’m definitely quitting and taking a cab to the nearest airport.” But I never did end up quitting, partly because squeezing the brakes would’ve been too painful with my claw-hands. Around dinner time, we coasted into Connellsville, PA, and headed to our bed and breakfast. We enjoyed an elegant, home-cooked dinner of pork cutlets and garden vegetables as a small elfin man standing under my chair repeatedly and viciously punched me in the groin. That’s what it felt like, at least. In reality, I just had saddle sore. If you ride the trail, make sure you opt for an extremely padded seat, or buy a pair of those padded shorts. I spent the next day standing on the pedals as much as possible, I’ll tell you that.

The rest of the trip went much like this, though it did get easier. Since the trail follows an old railroad line, there are sections that go under mountains instead of over them. Bicycling through a long, dim tunnel was certainly a novel experience; while we were underground, I would amuse myself by wondering if aliens or volcanoes or nuclear weapons were, at that very moment, and unknown to us, obliterating the human race, leaving us to reemerge onto an empty, devastated planet, as the last humans on earth, but this never happened as far as I could tell. The solitude and quiet of nature does grow on you after a while, though as we rode south, the trail grew more and more crowded with bicyclists. We did the entire trail in four days, although we did cheat a little and have a friend pick us up at Great Falls.  All in all, it was a fairly pleasant experience, and I’m looking forward to doing the trail again, after they pave and widen it enough to accommodate my car.

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