Willimantic: The Cycling Trail Connector

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Click the image to enlarge
Click the image to enlarge and read this historical marker about the Air Line and Hop River trails

To celebrate National Trails Day,  I rode the East Coast Greenway from Hartford to Willimantic, to see the newly-opened connector. In Bolton, I jumped on the Hop River Trail and pedaled southeast along this old railway bed, covered by wonderful shade trees. When this trail ended, I pedaled about a mile on the road west of town, then switched onto the brand-new trail that runs along the Willimantic river. While this new trail is relatively short, it now gives Hop River riders a way to avoid highway traffic into downtown Willimantic, or to cross a bridge to connect to the Air Line south trail to East Hampton. I took both options, first by zipping into town for a late breakfast at the Willimantic Food Co-op, then back across the bridge for a ride on the Air Line south trail, where I encountered dozens of cyclists and hikers enjoying the day as much as I did.

Check out the map above with trails (in green) and street routes (in blue). Click on any route to view its name and mileage. Download any of these files in GPX format: ECG Hop River, Willimantic west, Willimantic trail, Willimantic downtown, Air Line north, and Air Line south.

Update: This post features the easy routes that I would recommend to most riders with suitable tires for crushed stone trails, such as hybrid, touring, or mountain bikes. If you ride a skinny-tire road bike, these trails may not work for you. Also, these routes are ideal for dry weather, as heavy rains can turn sections into mud.

Also, I biked a longer route than shown above. I began in West Hartford and rode the East Coast Greenway through Hartford, East Hartford, and Manchester, and continued on the ECG/Hop River trail as described above. (See East Coast Greenway maps page for details.) When I finished the Air Line south trail in East Hampton, I biked through Glastonbury, crossed on the ferry at Cromwell, then back home through Rocky Hill and Newington. My total was 83 miles.

Download any of the photos below from my Flickr album.

  • Willimantic connector for the Hop River and Air Line trails

  • ECG Willimantic west entrance

  • ECG Hop River trail entrance at Bolton

  • East Hampton Air Line trail sign

Hartford “Slow Roll” and West Hartford “Wheels” Rides

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If you’re looking for friendly, non-racing bike rides with friendly folks this summer, check out two Hartford-area options.

Hartford "Slow Roll" riders at Elizabeth Park in May 2016
Hartford “Slow Roll” riders at Elizabeth Park in May 2016

Join the Hartford “Slow Rolls” for informal rides to explore the city and meet people on selected Sunday afternoons. The pace is usually around 10-12 miles per hour, for about an hour of actual riding, and the direction depends on whatever the group decides (which sometimes changes mid-route). This is not a highly-structured route with cue sheets, but rather a friendly ride with people who enjoy exploring. Although I’ve been riding around the city for fifteen years, I always learn something new, and enjoy meeting folks who come out with us. The organizers usually announce about two rides per month as Facebook events, which are usually shared on the FB sites of BiCiCoHartford or Transport Hartford or Breakfast Lunch & Dinner. Or see this event announcement for the next ride on Sunday June 12th at 3pm, starting at the parking lot on 1429 Park Street in Hartford.

Also, the Bike West Hartford group has announced a series of “Wheels on Wednesdays” rides, beginning on June 8th at 6:30pm in the parking lot behind West Hartford Town Hall, 50 South Main Street. These also are non-competitive friendly rides of about 10 miles or more, with groups for varying paces. The first ride will feature the West Hartford Reservoir. The organizers require you to wear a helmet and sign a liability form. This summer these rides are scheduled for alternate Wednesday evenings: June 8, June 22, July 6, July 20, Aug 3, Aug 17th. Learn more at the link above.

Hartford "Slow Roll" at Charter Oak Landing on Memorial Day Weekend 2016
Hartford “Slow Roll” at Charter Oak Landing on Memorial Day Weekend 2016
Jose made my day by letting me try out his "fat bike" with 4-inch wide tires. Felt like I was pedaling a motorcycle!
Jose made my day by letting me try out his “fat bike” with 4-inch wide tires. Felt like I was pedaling a motorcycle!


Reading Outside Lies Magic

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Stilgoe-outside-lies-magicMy new friend Jeff Allred at Hunter College learned of our shared interest in cycling, and recommended that I read John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. His book reveals what “the explorer,” traveling by foot or bicycle, can discover by looking more closely at ordinary objects that most of us pass by, especially when trapped inside the metal box of a motor car. This wide-ranging set of essays rambles across multiple topics, and many of these resonated with my own memories of what I’ve seen while riding a bike, though Stilgoe has taught me to take a second look. My favorite passage is his observation about fences:

Depending on the spacing of the pickets that seem at first glance to make a solid wall, the bicyclist-explorer can pedal with some magic speed that makes the fence transparent. Usually about 11 miles an hour does the trick. At that speed the explorer can see through the fence almost as though the fence had disappeared. At a speed that runners and pedestrians rarely reach for long and so slow that a few motorists ever attempt it, the explorer rides effortlessly, and secretly, screened from observation by the fences intended to block views, spying on what the fences surround.

Stilgoe also taught me how to look more closely at telephone poles, railroad ties, and rural delivery mailboxes. He also reminds us how bicyclists of the 1900s agitated government to improve roads in ways that benefitted cars, and how the Cold War led to the construction of interstate highways in the 1950s and 60s, which continue to ban walkers and bikers today. The book encourages us to explore the limited access frontage roads and the back parking lots that link together commercial strip malls. He shows us how to look at the fraternal-order signs that welcome visitors into small towns, and the historical relationship between main street businesses, trees, insurance companies, and firehouses.

Overall, it’s a book that I recommend, as have others, such as the Neglected Books site, which notes that this title is no longer in print, though used copies and digital editions are still available for sale. Or check it out from your library, as I did. In any case, it’s the right book to read outside.



Exploring Hartford on the First “Slow Roll” Sunday of 2016

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Today marked the first Hartford “Slow Roll” Sunday bike ride of 2016. These are informal meetups of friendly cyclists who love to explore while riding around the city. Today did a leisurely 6-mile ride and landed at the southern branch of the Park River, where the waterway tunnels under downtown Hartford. I’ve lived here for over fifteen years and it was my first time seeing this. Come and join us on a future ride and go places that you can’t reach by car. Find out about the next Slow Roll by following the Facebook page for BiCiCo, Hartford’s new community-oriented bike shop.

Slow Rollers explore the Park River southern branch tunnel
Slow Rollers explore the Park River southern branch tunnel

Satellite view of the Park River southern branch tunnel from Google Maps

Tony Cherolis launches the Slow Roll with a portable sound system.

Jennifer Yanko and family on today's Slow Roll
Jennifer Yanko and family on today’s Slow Roll
Best of Show at today's Slow Roll. The bike's name is "Warning" because it features a yellow warning label.
Best of Show at today’s Slow Roll. The bike’s name is “Warning,” due to the yellow warning label.

Why Bike to Trinity? Interview by Alex Perez

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Alex Perez, a Hartford bike advocate and Trinity College student, interviewed me for his blog, Two-Wheeled Hartford, and my responses are re-posted below, with additional photos.

Jack Dougherty's bike parking spot at Trinity College
Jack Dougherty’s favorite bike parking spot in McCook Hall at Trinity College

Why do you choose to commute to Trinity by bike?

“There are so many different reasons to bike to work. One is that I’m always trying to lose weight, since I spend so much time in front of a computer. My time is limited, so it makes more sense to exercise on my way to and from Trinity, rather than driving somewhere else to exercise. Another reason is that parking a car at Trinity can be a nightmare, but there’s always room to park my bike. Even on those days when someone else has taken “my” favorite bike parking spot, I’m smiling inside because it means travel by two wheels is becoming more popular. It’s always easier to make more room for parking bikes than cars on campus. Still, another reason to bike is that you see and hear so much more around you than from inside a car. Biking sets the right pace for me to notice what’s changing as I pedal through different neighborhoods, or to say hello to kids and crossing guards along my route. But the most important reason is that I’m having fun. For me, the best way to end a long day at Trinity is to hop on my bike, zip down the hill, and silently shout ‘WHEEEEE!’ to myself as I ride away from campus. Makes me feel like a kid again.”

I smile when this Trinity parking lots starts to fill up.
I smile when this Trinity College parking lots starts to fill up.

2) How long have you been commuting to Trinity by bike?

“For me, biking to work has been a gradual process that changed with my family responsibilities. A decade ago, I rode only occasionally to work during the summer months. As my children grew old enough to ride on my bike’s child seat (or trailer bike, or the back half of our tandem), I began cycling more often when the weather was good, because I could drop them off or pick them up at child care and elementary school. Now that my youngest is a teenager, I ride to Trinity about 3-4 times per week during most of the year. But I don’t ride every day. When the forecast calls for heavy rain, or tall snowbanks block my visibility, I drive my 1998 Honda Odyssey minivan, which has over 190,000 miles on the odometer. Riding your bike to work also cuts down on car payments.”

Riding with daughter Eva in 2004
Riding with daughter Eva on a trailer bike in 2004, when I began cycling to work

3) What are your thoughts on getting around Hartford by cycling? Any major obstacles during your commutes?

“To comfortably ride your bike, you need to feel safe about traveling on two wheels. To some degree, safety comes from creating bike lanes and passing laws to protect riders, which we’re seeing more from local governments and bike advocacy groups. (For example, cyclists from West Hartford and other suburbs often are surprised by the growing number of bike lanes in the City of Hartford.) But your personal sense of safety also increases by trying new routes and expanding your comfort zone. I’ve learned so much about cycling around the Hartford region from official tours (such as the BikeWalkCT Discover Hartford and Discover CT series) and informal group rides (such as the wonderful HTFD Slow Roll events). Exploring new paths by bike, especially with more experienced friends, helps us to grow and learn what’s possible. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun.”

To see Hartford on two wheels, join us for a Slow Roll event
To see different sides of Hartford on two wheels, join us on a Slow Roll event

4) What suggestions do you have for making the campus and/or the city more bike friendly?

“I’m impressed by the energy of Hartford’s brand-new bike shop, BiCiCo, a Spanish abbreviation for Bicicleta Comunidad (or Bicycle Community). This non-profit organization recently opened its doors at 95-97 Park Street, and currently provides do-it-yourself workspace and build-a-bike training, with retail sales/repairs to come. Thanks to its parent organization, the Center for Latino Progress, and their youth program coordinator, Tony Cherolis, BiCiCo has raised thousands of dollars through grants and affordable memberships. Plus, it’s a happening place. Over the past week, my daughter Eva and I visited three times to build her next bike from used parts, and we met more than a dozen members (including Trinity Professor Dario Del Puppo, who taught us how to replace the fork of a bike). With the growing number of riders on campus, I wonder if the Trinity community would be interested in a one-hour basic bike repair workshop on campus, or student memberships at BiCiCo.”

Tony, my daughter Eva, and new members we met at BiCiCo
Tony, my daughter Eva, and a few of the new members we met at BiCiCo

“PS to Alex: A few years ago, there was a left-turn green arrow at the northbound stoplight on Zion Street at Hamilton Street, near the base of Summit Street. For some reason, someone turned off this arrow, which makes it much harder to turn left on a bike, when facing oncoming traffic, to head toward Pope Park. Do you know anyone at City Hall who can bring it back?”

Join the New Britain bike tour on Sunday, Sept 27th

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DiscoverCT2015Come join us in New Britain on Sunday, September 27th, 2015, for the second installment of the Discover Connecticut Bike Tour, co-sponsored by BikeWalkCT and the New Britain Museum of American Art. This is a family-friendly event, not a race, with options for 10, 25, and 50 miles rides. The registration fee also includes brunch at the museum! I’ll be riding as a marshal/mobile mechanic to help folks in case of flat tires.  Learn more details and register for this event.

Check out the 10, 25, and 50 mile routes on this mobile-friendly interactive map that works on all computer and smartphone browsers. See the full-screen view, or type this shortlink into your browser: bit.ly/bikenewbrit

On Sunday, several of us tested the ride with the Bike New Britain organizers, Mark Hoffman and Bruce Miller, who have planned out routes that take us on bike lanes, wide roads, and parks around the city.

Tracy and Ethan Frankel met up for the practice ride at the New Britain Museum of American Art
Tracy and Ethan Frankel and others met at the New Britain Museum of American Art
The 25-mile route passes by Rogers Orchards and their apple cider donuts
The 25-mile route passes by Rogers Orchards and their apple cider donuts
All of the routes link up with the CTfastrak multi-use trail
All of the routes link up with the CTfastrak multi-use trail

The map above is also a mobile-friendly map that works on any smartphone, with no special app required—see more details further below.Before the ride begins:

  1. Type this shortlink into your browser:
  2. Turn on Location Services (your GPS locator) in your smartphone browser.
    – For iPhone: Settings > Privacy > Location Services > On (for Safari browser)
    – For Android: *instructions to come*
  3. If you get lost, pull off the road to location where you can safely use your smartphone, and click the “Show my location” button.

    Show My Location button in iPhone browser
    Show My Location button in iPhone view
  4. Optional: Save the link to your phone as a bookmark, or add to your home screen.
    – For iPhone: Press the “send” icon in the bottom center of your Safari browser, and either “Add Bookmark” or “Add to Home Screen.”

    iPhone send button
    iPhone send button
    iPhone buttons to save link
    iPhone buttons to save link

    – For Android: *instructions to come*

This web map is designed to supplement paper maps and cue sheets, not to replace them. This web map does NOT provide turn-by-turn directions. The mobile version requires a smartphone with GPS and internet service.  Always watch the road when biking, not your phone. If you need to use the web map during a ride, pull off to the side to view it safely. Remember that this is a free web tool, with no guarantee nor warranty.

To learn more about the open-source code, and how to modify or embed a map for your bike organization’s website, see http://bit.ly/bikemapcode or email me.

Biking Le P’tit Train du Nord, Quebec 2015

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To celebrate our 27th anniversary, Beth and I biked along Le P’tit Train du Nord (The Little Train of the North) rail trail, which stretches about 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Mont-Laurier to Saint Jerome in the northwest region of Montreal, Quebec. We highly recommend this wonderful trail for couples and families who are looking for beginner-to-intermediate rides of 50-80 km (30-50 miles) per day on asphalt and packed stone trails, with bed and breakfasts (or rustic camping) along the way. Learn about our three-day adventure below and read more about this trail on Wikipedia and the official tourism site.

Download any of these photos from my Flickr Album

The day before our bike trip, we drove to Saint Jerome, a suburb to the north of Montreal, where we parked our van at the 0 km mark and boarded the Autobus shuttle to Mont-Laurier, a town at the opposite end of the trail on the 200km mark. Max and his co-workers kindly loaded and secured our tandem bike to the trailer of their shuttle. Finding our way to the Autobus parking lot in St. Jerome was challenging for us because we could not rely on Google Maps, as we chose not to pay extra international data roaming fees to our smartphone carrier. But Beth navigated “old-school” using paper maps she found in our 1998 minivan, and we also downloaded the Open Street Map for Quebec using the inexpensive Maps.me smartphone app, which we highly recommend.

  • Navigator Beth goes old-school with paper maps in Canada, where we lack phone reception

  • Max loaded our tandem onto the shuttle trailer to take us from St Jerome to the trailhead at Mont-Laurier

  • The 200km Le P'tit Train du Nord rail trail

On Day 1 of our bike trip, we pedaled 55 km (34 miles) from our Mont-Laurier hotel to Nominingue, which led us up a gradual incline through the most rural portion of the trip. This section of the rail trail was paved asphalt and in good condition, with warning signs for bumps or holes. About every 10km along this section of trail were wooden “caboose” shelters and picnic tables, with water faucets less frequently, though we were glad to have brought our own lunch food from the IGA grocery store in Mont-Laurier. We met several friendly riders on the trail this day. Nearly all were Canadian, and most spoke French as their first language. In Nominingue, we arrived at the Auberge Chez Ignance, where Beth had booked us a room at this bed and breakfast, which also fed us an amazing gourmet dinner. Honestly, it was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, with amazing variety (meat, poultry, fish, and vegetarian options) and outstanding flavors. Beth, my French translator and cultural guide, taught me a new phrase—tourisme gastronomique—or traveling primarily to explore new foods.

  • Fabulous dinner for two at the Auberge Chez Ignance

  • The Canadians write "danger" on the trail next to hazards, big or small

  • Riding along with Stu

  • Riding alongside Jacqueline

  • Riding alongside Hailey

  • Riding alongside Mike

  • The Canadians built these cute "caboose" shelters, plus picnic tables and outhouses, about every 10km along the trail from Mont-Laurier

  • Beth was impressed with the historical placards and interpreted them from French for me.

  • Shared the rail trail with several roller bladed dog walkers

  • We met Stu and Mike (and their spouses) from Toronto on the trail

  • Tandem selfie on the trail

  • Only 200 kilometers to our destination at St Jerome

  • Beginning the bike trail at the Mont-Laurier Station

On Day 2, we rode 63 km (39 miles) from Nominingue to the Mont-Tremblant region, and we stopped for the night at another bed and breakfast in the small town of Saint Jovite. The portion of the trail was relatively flat and shifted from asphalt to packed stone, which also was in good condition (with fewer bumps and holes than the asphalt section). Several of the old train stations here had been renovated into cafes and museums, and our lunch stop at La Belle was one of our favorites. Since Mont-Tremblant is home to a national park and center for tourism, we encountered many more cyclists here, and were pleased to see so many senior citizens and families with young children riding the trail.

Elevation chart of the rail trail, which ranges from about 50 to 450 m (about 150 to 1400 feet). Source: Laurentides.com
Click to enlarge this elevation chart of the rail trail, which ranges from about 50 to 450 m (about 150 to 1400 feet). We travelled from right to left. Source: Laurentides.com
  • Oddly, Beth chose not to join me in this photo

  • We stumbled into a free jazz festival in Mont-Tremblant

  • We were pleasantly surprised to see so many cyclists in Mont-Tremblant, especially senior citizens and families with children

  • After La Belle, the trail shifted from asphalt to hard packed stone, but it's in fabulous condition

  • Fab poster from 1980s about how trains can kill you at LaBelle Station. The train stopped running in 1990s

  • Stopping on the bridge

  • Along the rail trail, old stations have been converted into cafes and museums, like this one in Rivière-Rouge

  • Outside our inn, Auberge Chez Ignance

  • Eli would enjoy this backyard chess set

Based on where we stayed the previous two nights, we had a long third day (82 km, or 51 miles) to finish our journey back to Saint Jerome. To start off the morning, we rode uphill for about 10 km, pedaled along the summit, then glided downhill to the end. Overall, the packed stone dust trail was in good shape, but watch out for some weather-related deterioration near the end, where it turned into sand. Although we rode through a not-so-attractive quarry and lumber mill at the summit, biking through the forest and along the waterfalls during the rest of the day was beautiful.

  • Archway to the Little Train of the North rail trail in Saint Jerome

  • Happy to have finished our 200 km ride at the Saint Jerome station

  • Cycling and cross-country skiing sculpture in Prevost

  • As we rolled closer to Montreal on a Friday afternoon, we encountered many cyclists of all ages

  • Fawn enjoying lunch near the trail

  • One of the many beautifully renovated train stations and cafes in La Belle

  • The ugliest portion of an otherwise beautiful trail was an enormous quarry, lumber mill, and junk pile near the summit

  • You can tell that we don't have many phone booths in the U.S., but they're still common in Quebec

  • Catching some morning sunshine on a bike trail platform overlooking Lac Carre

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Discover West Hartford 2015, with Ideas for 2016

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DiscoverCT2015BikeWalkCT sponsored a Discover West Hartford bike tour on Saturday June 6th, 2015, the first of a new series of group rides in Connecticut. Riders had the option of an 11, 25, or 50 mile loop, and the staggered start times were designed to bring everyone back around the same time to the Celebrate West Hartford event. Thanks to Rick Thibodeau and many volunteers from Bike West Hartford, this was a well-organized event with over 200 participants (and perhaps more). Here’s some lessons I learned while riding as a marshall/mobile mechanic with the 25-mile tour.

Rob Dexter preparing to co-ead the 50-mile tour.
Rob Dexter preparing to co-lead the 50-mile tour.

Show safe and scenic routes to newer riders and they’ll come back for more.
While pedaling with the pack, my standard question was, “What’s something that you’ve never biked on before today?” The most common reply was that everything was new and different. Our 25-mile route took people through Elizabeth Park, down Quaker Lane to the Trout Brook Trail, and around Wood Pond, around the Cornerstone Recreation Area to the MDC Reservoir, then up Mountain Road and behind Bugbee School to the Center. Most of the cyclists I met had never biked on Trout Brook Trail (currently a tiny, beautiful route behind the Elmwood Community Center, which the Town is gradually expanding north to Albany Avenue). Some told me that they had never seen Wood Pond, despite living in West Hartford for several years. And while I’ve been biking around here for about a decade, the route took me on several roads in the Buena Vista area that I had never ridden nor driven on beforehand.

To help cyclists visualize the routes, I created an interactive map on the Bike West Hartford site (see below) and shared this shortlink to it (http://bit.ly/bikemapwh). Click “View Full Screen” and press the Layers icon to select the 11, 25, or 50-mile route. It’s mobile-friendly and works on smartphones, too, and you also can press the Marker icon to find your current location. The map runs on open-source code, which BikeWalkCT or anyone is welcome to copy, modify, and host on their own website. If you prefer turn-by-turn cue sheets, see the BikeWalkCT links to RideWithGPS for the 11-mile, 25-mile, and 50-mile routes. Also, the organizers handed out helpful paper guides and maps at the event, which could easily be uploaded to the website as a resource for riders unable to join us.

Explore this interactive map of the 11-25-50 mile Discover West Hartford routes

Continually educate cyclists about making our community a better place to ride. 
Our best cycling organizations do an incredible amount of behind-the-scenes advocacy to persuade local and state governments to improve routes for safe riding. One week before the event, I participated in a pre-ride for volunteer marshals, and heard up-to-date info on several biking initiatives from experienced advocates. But we did not have an effective way to communicate this information to the 200+ riders at the event or to mobilize their support. Next time, we could hand out a one-page advocacy sheet to riders at the finish line. Even better, we could ask riders to share their ideas on video at the end point, and ask them “what did you learn today?” and “what worked well and what could be improved about biking around West Hartford?”

At the finish line, Tracey and Ethan organized the Bike Corral for riders to enjoy the fair.
At the finish line, Tracey and Ethan organized the Bike Corral for riders to enjoy the fair.

Create easy ways to bring families with young cyclists back into the event.
Last week, my five-year-old neighbor (who’s always on his bike) and his mother asked me if there would be any bicycling events for children in West Hartford this summer. For the past two years, Bike West Hartford sponsored a “Wheel Fun Day” festival in mid-May, with a 2-mile ride down North Main Street to Town Hall, where many events were geared toward families with children. But organizing this event required many volunteer hours, and questions arose about whether the limited outcomes warranted such a large investment of time. This year, Bike West Hartford collaborated with BikeWalkCT to sponsor this 11-25-50 mile ride, timed to coincide with Celebrate West Hartford. This type of group ride is great for adults, but does not offer much for families with young children.

Next year, if it’s too challenging to organize a separate “Wheel Fun Day” event, might BikeWalkCT and Bike West Hartford create a special 1 or 2-mile ride for families with children? One route could be the Trout Brook Trail, which currently runs from New Park Avenue (right behind Hartford Baking Company) to Quaker Lane South, then crosses the road and goes up to Jackson Avenue (a brand-new addition), and is planned to go further north to connect with other existing pieces. Oddly, the newest segment of this bike trail was not included in any of our 10-25-50 mile rides, partly because it is too new, and not yet fully connected. If we draw attention and organize a family-friendly ride on this work-in-progress, perhaps that will create more pressure to bring it to a more timely completion.

Explore the newly expanded Trout Brook Trail, and help it grow.
Explore the newly expanded Trout Brook Trail, and help make it grow.

Interested in the next Discover Connecticut ride organized by BikeWalkCT? Learn more about the New Britain ride scheduled for Sunday, September 27th, 2015.

On the C&O-GAP bike trail from DC to Pittsburgh, May 2015

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Follow me this week (May 16-20, 2015) on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal – Great Allegheny Passage bike trail. I’m riding from Washington DC to Pittsburgh PA to visit old friends, and meet up with Beth and our daughters to drive to Eli’s graduation at Oberlin College, near Cleveland OH.

Download any of these photos from my Flickr Album

My post-trip reflections for anyone who is thinking about biking all or part of this trail, and you should, because it’s a wonderful journey:

  • Decide how much to see, and in which direction. I rode west on the full DC-to-Pittsburgh trail (336 miles) plus an extra 20 miles for side trips in 5 full days, averaging about 70 per day. I had planned to do it over 6 days, but the weather changed my mind, as explained below. Most people would prefer a week to do the full trail. If you don’t have that much time, consider a shorter segment from Pittsburgh to Cumberland (the GAP portion, which is the prettiest, in my opinion), or DC to Cumberland (the C&O Canal portion, which also has its charms). Note that the C&O portion follows an old towpath which varies from a single-track dirt trail to a wider crushed stone trail. It’s relatively flat, and has hiker/biker campsites with water pumps (most work, but not all) about every 10 miles or so. By contrast, the GAP portion is a well-maintained and wider crushed stone trail, but rises in elevation from about 600 to 2400 feet. I had no choice but to ride the C&O portion first, and I’m glad that I did because it got the rougher (muddy) portion out of the way first. Order the Trailbook, which includes a waterproof map.  See a handy route guide with elevation that Matt Black uploaded to Ride with GPS.
  • Do you prefer to camp and/or lodge? I rode with full gear and alternated between camping and staying in a bed and breakfast. On the trail I met some who camped only, and others who only stayed in B&Bs. Prices and experiences will vary during the season, but I camped for free (or $10 in Cumberland) and found space without reservations in very nice B&Bs in Hancock and Confluence, MD for $75/night. My strategy provided maximum flexibility, but required me to carry extra weight on my bike. If you stick to a firm schedule and accurately estimate your pace, you could do the whole trip with reservations at carefully-placed B&Bs (or maybe AirBNBs).
  • Rain and mud may slow you down. While I dodged two big storms, it wasn’t possible to avoid rain-soaked trails (aka very long puddles) that they created. For me, the biggest surprise of this trip was how much energy it took me to slog through muddy trails. My touring bike has 1.5 inch tires, and I’m used to riding it on pavement at 13 to 15 mph when touring. But a day after a serious storm, the muddy path slowed me down to 7 to 10 mph, and clogged my brake pads and brake lines. You can definitely ride the trail on a hybrid bike, but if the forecast calls for rain and you have access to a mountain bike, take it instead.
  • Make time to talk with folks along the way. A friendly smile can be a great way to start a conversation. Not everyone wants to talk; some people wish to be alone or are in a big hurry. But I had a wonderful time meeting up with some fascinating people.

Day 0: Connecticut to DC

Rode every form of mass transit to haul my bike (in the green suitcase) and my gear (in the red backpack suitcase, which I stole from my daughter Eva — you’ll get it back soon!) from West Hartford CT to my in-law’s house in Chevy Chase MD. Caught the #62 bus ($1.50) down Farmington Ave to the Hartford bus station. Switched to the #30 Bradley Flyer bus ($1.50) to the airport, which I’ve never taken before. About a 45 minute ride, picking up workers in downtown Hartford and dropping them off around Windsor Locks and the airport. Flew on Southwest Airlines ($5, thanks to my frequent flyer points) to BWI Airport. Rode the free BWI-Amtrak/MARC shuttle, then caught the MARC train to Union Station in DC ($6). Rode the Metro red line to Bethesda ($3.75), then walked the last mile to the Rose’s house. A little over 6 hours door-to-door.

  • Geared up for the trip

Day 1: DC to Harper’s Ferry, WV

From the Rose’s house in Chevy Chase, MD, about 10 miles downhill on the Crescent Circle trail to the Georgetown area of DC, where the C&O Canal trail begins, then another 62 miles to Huckleberry Hill biker/hiker campsite near Harper’s Ferry, WV. Lots of joggers, kayakers, and families on the trail and in the Potomac River on this beautiful Saturday, until a big thunderstorm rolled in, which I dodged by hanging out in the Beans in the Belfry cafe in Brunswick (their paninis and chocolate milkshakes are highly recommended). Things that happened too quickly for me to photograph: two Great Blue Herons swooping down the canal, and several White-Tailed Deer jumping across the towpath, including one about three feet in front of me. Funniest moment of the day: biking next to a guy named Mike, who happened to mention that he grew up in Whitesboro in Upstate New York (about 25 miles from my hometown of Morrisville), and that his brother went to SUNY Morrisville, and also that Mike was stationed during his Navy years in Whidbey Island, near Seattle, where I biked last summer. Small world on the bike trail.

  • Photo bombing the famous 1954 hike by Justice Douglas to preserve C&O Canal

  • In the park with David Rose before my trip

  • Set up my tent at Huckleberry Hill bike/hike campsite, then discovered the water pump was broken. Oh well, maybe the rain will solve that problem.

  • Eunice (an emotional support dog) and Virginia (carrying a GPS tracking device) accompanied some hikers I met where the Appalachian Trail merges with the C&O bike trail.

  • My turtle buddy and I slogged our way through post-thunderstorm puddles on the C&O bike trail

  • The C&O Canal bike route includes these impressive old aqueducts, now dry, where engineers routed the canal to cross over rivers

  • Beans in the Belfry Cafe in Brunswick MD is a popular bike stop.

  • On the C&O bike trail I met Mike, who happened to grow up in Whitesboro NY, about 20 miles from my hometown of Morrisville.

  • Baby goslings along the canal bike trail

  • Enjoying the water along the canal bike trail

  • Next bike trip, bring the kayak. Lots of folks at Great Falls today

  • Starting at mile 0 on C&O Canal bike trail in Washington DC

  • Father-in-law David tried to catch a ride on my bike trip, but I didn't have room. Need another bungee cord.

Day 2:  Harper’s Ferry to Hancock, MD

Today’s theme was mud. While I dodges yesterday’s late-afternoon thunderstorm, I couldn’t avoid that dirt trails of the C&O canal towpath had transformed into long patches of mud, interspersed with a stretch of crushed limestone, then more mud. Steering and pedaling my way through this slop with my bike and gear strapped was a physical challenge that slowed me down to 8-9 miles per hour (compared to 13-15 mph on pavement) and strained my leg muscles. After 40 miles to the Williamsport historic park, I took a nap on a shady picnic table bench in the shade (rather than on the grass with the Black Snake who greeted my entrance to the park). For the next 15 miles, the trail to Hancock was a more consistent stretch of limestone, then for the last 10 miles I rolled on the glorious pavement of the Western Maryland Rail Trail. Never before had asphalt looked so beautiful. Decided to check into the River Run B&B in Hancock for the night to clean up and rest. It’s been two days without a shower and even the dogs were beginning to howl and hide their noses as I rode by. I borrowed a hose to wash the mud off of my bike, then crawled into the shower to wash it off of me.

  • Was drawn to this restaurant in Hancock MD by their bike on the roof

  • A Black Snake greeted me at Williamsport Historical Park, so napped on picnic table rather than grass.

  • At the Farmers Market in Shepherdstown, I met Rudy the Great Dane, who is deaf due to inbreeding, say the owners. Will be an emotional support dog for the elderly.

  • Took a bike detour into Shepherdstown WV

  • Some obstacles on the bike trail. Maybe I can learn to jump these?

  • My bike travels led me to the Farmers Market in Shepherdstown WV

  • Followed Kristen Nawrotzki's advice to hang my food bag with fishing line to avoid raccoon problems I had on a previous bike trip. The digital history geek bag was all I had around the house

Day 3: Hancock to Cumberland, MD

The day started with a smooth roll along with (paved) Western Maryland Rail Trail out of Hancock, parallel to the (gravel and muddy) C&O towpath. A pleasant break from yesterday’s mud bath, at least for my first ten miles or so. Rode along with some cyclists and discovered some funny coincidences. Drew Tappan happens to share the same last name with the Oberlin College square where Eli will be graduating next weekend (long story) and he also might have known my sister-in-law Becca at Earlham in the early 1990s. I also rode alongside Pamela and Jess, who are celebrating their honeymoon along the bike trail on their way to visit family in Pittsburgh, and saw that Pamela carries a Mark Twain House coffee mug from a visit to Hartford years ago. Also met a friendly pair of hikers, Valerie and Rick, who helped me get a water pump flowing. This particular one was a two-person job, which I couldn’t have managed alone.
As I huffed and puffed my way along the trail on a fairly hot and humid day, imagine my delight as I descended into the mouth of the Paw Paw Tunnel (3,300 feet long), which felt like I had stumbled into a giant air conditioner. Turned on my big light and walked my bike, rather than ride through the tunnel, due to all of the puddles and potholes, and well, because I wanted that feeling to last as long as possible. Later on the trail I took a nap on the front porch of an old canal lock keeper’s house, and further down the trail I found another porch to dodge a rainstorm. But that storm meant the last 20 miles turned into another long series of mud puddles on the C&O canal towpath. My bike and my legs have told me that they’re done with mud for this week. Had a pleasant night camping outside the Cumberland YMCA (five stars, if you don’t mind trains) and am looking forward to some solid trail (though uphill) as I switch over to the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP).
  • Peaceful night in the bike campground at Cumberland YMCA, as long as you don't mind trains.

  • They got creative with the numbering system out on the C&O canal / bike trail

  • On the bike trail I met Drew Tappan, who might have known my sister-in-law at Earlham College

  • We walked our bikes through the 1/2 mile Paw Paw Tunnel

  • Took a bike siesta on the porch of an old canal lock tender's house

  • Valerie and Rick are hiking the bike trail, and helped me out at the water pump (this one was a two-person job).

  • Riding with Pamela and Jess, on the bike trail for their honeymoon. (Pamela's coffee mug was from the Mark Twain House in Hartford. Small world.)

Day 4: Cumberland, MD to Confluence, PA

Compared to my post-rainstorm experience of the muddy C&O Canal, Cathy from North Carolina told me, “the GAP trail is a superhighway for bicyclists.” I wholeheartedly agree. The Cumberland-to-Pittsburgh GAP trail is a well-packed and wide crushed stone trail. Much smoother sailing than the on-and-off mud (mostly on) that I slogged through these past few days, which is fortunate because today I had to climb one big long hill, from Cumberland (about 600 feet) to the Eastern Continental Divide (about 2400 feet). No big deal compared to the West Coast hills I biked this summer, but was thankful that this route was on solid ground.

Met several friendly folks along the way. Terry from West Virginia and I cycled together for several miles on our climb out of Cumberland. At one point he leaped off his bike, pointed to the ground, and declared “that’s a red salamander in the eft stage!” Turns out Terry is a licensed West Virginia naturalist, who kindly pointed out several aspects of the terrain that I never would have noticed. Farther up the trail, at the Mason-Dixon Line between MD and PA, I stopped to chat with Cathy and Tom from North Carolina, and we compared notes on different bike tours we’ve done or have fantasized about in the future. Riding through Big Savage Tunnel (another natural air conditioner during hot noon hour) and reaching the Eastern Continental Divide were milestones of the day, then it was all downhill (gradually) into Confluence PA (a very nice spot to visit, if you really want to get away from AT&T mobile phone service and internet connections).

In Confluence I checked into a cute B&B on the river’s edge (Beth would love it here) to clean up, since I’ll be camping tomorrow night and don’t expect to find a warm shower until I reach Pittsburgh on Thursday. Ate dinner with Linda and Terry, a friendly couple from Smyrna, Delaware, who consider Confluence to be their second home and brought their bikes to ride a portion of the trail. Halfway through our conversation, I mentioned that I grew up in a small town in New York State. ” I recognized your Upstate New York accent!” exclaimed Linda. (She’s not the first person to have told me this, but I’ve never been able to detect this accent in other people, or hear it in my own voice.) Turns out that many moons ago, Linda had been a guidance counselor in Lafayette NY (about 30 miles west of my hometown of Morrisville) and also Solvay NY (closer to Syracuse). Once again, a small world on the bike trail.

  • I wouldn't have seen this red salamander on the GAP bike trail if Terry the naturalist hadn't pointed it out to me

  • Lynn Wollenberg Poland made me eat this, in Confluence PA.

  • Hard to take a good selfie inside the Big Savage Tunnel on the GAP bike trail

  • Tom and Cathy (from NC) standing on the PA and MD sides of the Mason Dixon line on GAP bike trail

  • Terry the naturalist from West Virginia pointed out several creatures and land features as we rode together

  • Very cool wind-powered bike art on the GAP switchback side trail up to Frostburg MD

  • I love these Road Runner cartoon-style signs to avoid trains in tunnels along the bike trail

  • The famous Cumberland Bone Cave along the GAP bike trail

  • Made it through the toughest part of my bike trip. All downhill from here!

Day 5: Confluence, PA to some campsite about 40 miles outside of Pittsburgh PA

Around 4:40pm I finally placed the call, and my spirits brightened when a familiar voice picked up on the second ring. “Hey Myron,” I asked, “how would you feel about me coming into Pittsburgh a day early?” He kindly agreed. I bought a couple of dark chocolate bars to fuel my decision to ride an additional 36 miles, on top of the 54 I had already pedaled, for a 90-mile ride from Confluence PA to their downtown Pittsburgh neighborhood. This was not the original plan, nor one that I had even considered throughout the day. But the overnight forecast called for mid-40 degree temperatures and rain the next morning. The Dravo hiker/biker campsite looked very peaceful, but that’s because it was also an historic cemetery. The only bed and breakfast in the region charged about $145 and didn’t offer Wi-Fi. So pushing on to Pittsburgh made sense, and the timing worked out to arrive before dark at the house of my old college friends Nancy and Myron, before their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Peggy went to bed.

I was impressed by the GAP bike trail along the Monongahela River through the Steel Valley section and into downtown Pittsburgh. Some folks prefer riding in the woods, but I also enjoy urban biking trails to see both abandoned steel mills and repurposed waterfront districts. While a couple of sections are on road, most of the GAP creatively winds its way on bike/pedestrian paths and bridges. Lots of walkers, joggers, and bikers shared the trail with me, as the evening hours were the warmest part of that particular day.

On Thursday, I rested my legs and walked around downtown Pittsburgh, then departed Friday morning on my bike to visit other friends in the city. At Carnegie Mellon University, I lunched with Wanda Dann, my former high school chemistry teacher in Upstate New York, who is now a professor of computer science and director of the Alice Project, an innovative way to teach object-oriented programming through animated visualization. I had not seen her since the mid-1980s, but looked her up a couple of years ago on Ada Lovelace Day to thank her for helping me learn a bit about coding. Then I biked to our friend Faith’s house in the Edgewood/Swissvale neighborhood, just outside of Pittsburgh, to meet up with my family and enjoy a fabulous meal to end another fabulous bike adventure. Early Saturday, I loaded my bike and gear into the trunk of the car, and we drove to the Cleveland area to meet more family for Eli’s graduation weekend at Oberlin College.

  • Biking around Sonke's old neighborhood

  • Wanda Dann, my former HS chem teacher, now a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon

  • Jack, Peggy, and Nancy for story time

  • Peggy loves to ride her bike

  • My bike trip ends at Nancy and Myron's house in downtown Pittsburgh, arriving before Peggy's bedtime

  • Riding the GAP bike trail along Fort Pitt Bridge into downtown Pittsburgh

  • Mother Goose and goslings (and a freight train in background) and I share the GAP bike trail in Pittsburgh

  • The GAP bike trail winds its way out of the woods and into Steel Valley, near Pittsburgh.

  • Rather than camp a cold rainy night at Dravo (a cemetery!), I pushed further on the bike trail to Pittsburgh.

  • Stunning bike route along the Youghiogheny River, with white water rafting below, Ohio Pyle PA

  • Best damn restrooms on the C&O-GAP bike trail in the Ohio Pyle PA depot.

  • Coolest water tower murals on the GAP bike trail

  • Thinking of my sisters on the bike trail. Ordered the #2 special: two poached eggs on English muffins, with homefries.

Trinity student Alex Perez on Hartford cycling

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This guest post is by Alex Perez, an avid cyclist and sophomore at Trinity College. Please fill out his quick online survey about bicycling conditions in the Hartford area.

Alex Perez on Founders Bridge
Alex Perez on Founders Bridge, Hartford

Back home in Chicago I would frequently ride my bicycle to navigate around the city. Whether it was to get to school, to work, or to just explore somewhere new, I personally always felt safe riding around Chicago. I feel like being able to ride your bicycle safely in a city allows you to connect more with your surroundings. When I arrived at Trinity, I did not know much about Hartford other than it was a small city on the east coast. I decided to bring my bicycle to campus and explore what Hartford had to offer. As I explored around the city, I saw issues with the number of bike lanes around the city, the conditions of these bike lanes, and very few people ride their bicycles. I have been working on my project to develop a bike map where the Hartford community can have open access to it. The goals are to create a bike friendlier city and promote a bigger cycling culture that can give hopefully provide connectivity all across the city and not just the downtown area. Currently, I want to connect with people who have worked on improving cycling elsewhere and receive feedback. I am reaching out for any possible suggestions in order to figure out what directions I should take next to create a greater cycling community in Hartford.

My initial reaction to Hartford after riding my bicycle around was that there was something missing. Also, at Trinity I observed that not many students stepped outside campus to explore the city. From my experiences riding around Hartford, I realized that not that many people walk around in the city either. Hartford does not have much connectivity between its neighborhoods, which is unfortunate because there is so much more the city can offer. Hartford is a historically and culturally rich city, but it lacks the transportation infrastructure to enable people to feel encouraged to visit Keney Park or Elizabeth Park, the Wadsworth Athenaeum or the Connecticut River Front. Also, one sentiment I had about riding my bicycle around Hartford was not feeling safe. As I rode my bicycle, I hardly found bike lanes, and if I did, they would only stretch for a block or two before cutting off at random. Some bike lanes faded off into the street, or were so poorly marked that they did not make cyclists feel any safer. These issues motivated me to try and repair the current bicycle situation in Hartford.

See Alex's bike map
Click bike map to open in new tab.

During my freshman year at Trinity, I started to develop a bike map of Hartford with Professor Cameron Douglass from the Environmental Sciences Program. We acquired GIS (Geographic Information System) data from the city of Hartford for their bike lane network, but discovered that the bike lanes currently in place are very disconnected from one another. We decided that in order to have an effective cycling route network in the city bike lanes should be connected to each other, and provide access to regional thoroughfares and existing bike paths. Our map (viewable at http://arcg.is/1FfQzTl) connected the bicycle lanes together, along with suggested bike routes that expanded throughout the greater Hartford region. After the map was completed, I realized my project has led to a broader initiative to lobby policy makers and community groups on these issues.

At this point in my project I want to seek different strategies organizations or professionals who have worked with improving cycling in other places and integrate those ideas to Hartford. All of it’s residents agree that Hartford is in need of revitalization, and I think that my bike map and our initiative can help increase future development. This is the perfect opportunity to get my project out there as Hartford is planning to build a new baseball stadium, a new dedicated regional bus network (CTfastrak), and Governor Malloy’s newly announced budget includes $100 million for transportation planning in the state (http://wnpr.org/post/gov-malloys-transportation-plan-spans-30-years-100-billion-lacks-funding-source). Cycling ought to be integrated with improved public transportation to get more people to be active in Hartford. People would be encouraged to ride their bicycles more often and create safer bicycle trips. Cycling has grown in other cities and I want bring that to Hartford and generate accompanying environmental, economic, and health benefits. A stronger cycling culture can bring new life to the city. Life in Hartford can benefit in the long run if my bike map becomes possible and it can bring the connectivity in between communities that it is missing.

Updated May 2015: See Alex’s presentation, “Cycling in the 21st Century: Developing a Bike-Friendly Community in Hartford, CT,” delivered at the Hartford City Council