Grad Student Guide to the GAP+CnO for Amateurs

GAP? CnO? I’m a geek who loves abbreviations, tell me more!

The stable Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and the muddy Chesapeake and Ohio (CnO) Canal trail form a continuous bike trail stretching over more than 300 crime-free miles (500 km for the rest of the world) from the steel-city of Pittsburgh to the steal-city of Washington DC. Rash motorists are not permitted to harass bikers on this completely off-road trail (crushed limestone, crushed gravel, cobblestone or mud) but there are more adventurous avenues for masochism. It borders major rivers every inch of the way and the fully tree-canopied route gives wild animals in your vicinity sufficient respite from the summer sun. Min Xu, lovingly called Minx here, and I, Aaditya Ramdas (both PhD students at Carnegie Mellon University), just completed biking the entire trail (June 2011) for the first time and I wanted to encourage other grad students to do it as well. For more detailed information than this guide, read about everything under the sun at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Allegheny_Passage, http://www.atatrail.org/,  http://bikewashington.org/canal/index.php and http://linkup.shaw-weil.com/.

I’m not only a geek, but also fat and ugly - can I complete the trail?

As you probably realised, it isn’t a walk in Schenley, a jog in Highland or a ride through Frick. However, a moderately fit person can complete the trail and others should definitely try - you might just take longer to finish it but you’ll finish, have fun and love it. Minx and I took 5 days averaging over 60 miles per day, but you could do it slowly and easily in 10 days too, pausing at waterfalls and bridges for all the Facebook profile pictures (unfortunately the gazelles, otters, hares, ducks, etc. don’t pose for pictures, and if you see a bear or snake you shouldn’t be taking photos anyway). There are professionals who do it in 3 days or less, but they wouldn’t be reading this guide and lazy, slouching, hungry, sleepy grads like us shouldn’t worry about timing records, but just enjoy the pristine natural beauty as well as the intense physical and mental challenge, pushing ourselves outside our normal comfort zone. The insanely beautiful trail should be inspiration enough to feel like wandering through the woods, and the second half should interest civil war enthusiasts (we crossed Hancock and the Mason-Dixon line, for example).

I just got a brilliant deal on a bike at Walmart - I’m really excited now!

My best guess is that your 100$ bike from Target (et al) probably won’t make it right to the end without making life hell on the way (ask me for more details and examples if you’re serious about going). Minx and I used mountain bikes, but most other people doing shorter segments had road bikes. Road bikes are easier on your body for touring longer distances, but mountain bikes are often cheaper and give better grip in muddy terrain, so which one you use is personal preference as long as you use a good one. Apart from a sturdy bike with quality parts, knowing how to fix almost everything on the bike (from derailleurs to brakes to chains to flats) is important, because the local mosquitoes aren’t going to help you out when something screws up 20 miles from the nearest bike shop. I volunteered and took classes for a month at http://freeridepgh.org/ to understand bike physics/mechanics that proved quite essential for us.

Where did you sleep? Under the stars, feeling poetic and peaceful?

Well, I know people who did just that, but I wouldn’t suggest it for a first trip. In fact, I wouldn’t even suggest camping with tents and sleeping bags for first-timers. The trail goes near a town every 20 miles or so, and if you plan a wee bit, you can stay at beds-n-breakfasts or hostels for the 4 or 5 nights. The advantage of being able to do laundry every night (and hence carry almost no spare clothes), grab a full heavy dinner and breakfast (and hence not eat dry fruits/nuts and energy bars all day), and crash on a soft bed, will only be appreciated once you finish the first complete day of riding. Besides, the little towns are beautiful (like Ohiopyle) or have a heavy civil war history (like Harper’s Ferry), and often have the nicest and most helpful people you will meet in this country and serve the tastiest home food as well. If you are sure you want to camp, there are a lot of campgrounds along the way with easy access to toilets, showers and insomnia.

How much stuff should we take in our new sexy trekking backpacks?

You’ll regret carrying a backpack with tons of stuff within the first hour of riding. Getting a really good rack (seat-post rack only if very minimalist, frame-rack otherwise) and good panniers can make a huge difference to your comfort and efficiency (and irritation levels). Pack as little as you possibly can - definitely bring along all bike essentials (tools, pump, spare tube, spare tire, degreaser, lube, patch kit, etc.) with a knowledge of what to do with them, some tasty energy bars (I recommend Clif bars, especially the chocolate brownie one) and dry fruits (like figs/prunes and a trek mix from Trader Joes) with maybe one spare change of clothes (biking attire is not essential, but I found my padded bike shorts and cycling jersey quite awesome). Water refills are frequently possible and simple town-stop-planning will help for lunch and a daily bottle of Gatorade. CnO even has hand pumps every few miles giving you safe (iodine-treated) and cold water so there isn’t a need to pack gallons of it in fear of dehydration. Get insect repellents and a first aid kit, but don’t go overboard because help is always near.

Which part of my body will hurt the most at the end of the trip?

To be honest, things hurt from day one. Your back because of bending over, your neck because of looking up while bending over, your arms from gripping the bars all day, your thighs from the miles of biking, but most crucially, your buttocks and will incessantly remind you that long-distance cycling for amateurs is literally a pain in the ass. You might get cyclist palsy where your fingers become weak and numb because of an unhappy ulnar nerve in your wrist (similar to carpel tunnel and median nerve), or maybe a sudden cramp from not taking enough salts or water, or perhaps your muscles and joints will squeak and squeal and stiffen because of over-exertion (and lack of protein, carbs, etc). Knowing your body (nutrition, rest, anatomy, etc) and understanding biking (your bike, correct posture, etc) are both crucial. I’ve probably made it sound worse than it really was, but in this case, ignorance is an abyss. Luckily, you can return by a comfortable Amtrak, and you can often carry your bike or check it in (call to verify, book).

I’m done with the GAP n CnO and loved it! Any further suggestions?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Divide_Mountain_Bike_Route

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appalachian_Trail

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacific_Crest_Trail

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continental_Divide_Trail

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Discovery_Trail