Shooting the GAP – biking the Great Allegheny Passage in two days (or less)

Once you have completed the C&O canal from DC to Cumberland, you can continue directly onto the Great Allegheny Passage, or GAP for short. The GAP has a much better reputation among cyclists. The surface is crushed stone which is very tightly packed. It is also meticulously maintained. I saw crews in multiple locations either chopping up downed trees or regrading some muddy sections. They were smoothing out surfaces that were not half as bad as large stretches of the C&O.

At the continental divide, I met a couple from Meyersdale who said “Pennsylvania doesn’t put a lot of money into their roads but they sure have nice bike trails”. He’s right, Pennsylvania has some awful roads, but great trails.

I departed Cumberland around 9:30. I took my time getting ready. Although I still woke up around 6, I knew I needed more rest. After stocking up on free hotel calories, I headed out. I cleaned and lubricated my chain after a couple miles and then didn’t stop pedaling until mile 20 (the mason-dixon line). I thought this was pretty impressive considering it is all uphill until the Eastern continental divide, which you cross after mile 23. The climb out of Cumberland is very tolerable to say the least. The GAP follows an old rail line so the grade is very mild (maybe 1.5% on average). That explains why it takes 23 miles to get to the top! Cumberland sits at only 600 feet above sea level, and I initially thought the divide was at 1800 feet. I thought that seemed a little low, and in fact it is, but more on that later.

Crossing into PA after mile 20

I hardly saw anyone on the climb. There was an occasional cyclist whizzing down the mountain. It must be fun going into Cumberland. You basically do not have to pedal for the last 20 miles. Once I reached the divide I realized my mistake.
It’s not 1800 feet in elevation, it’s just under 2400! No wonder it takes so long. As I said, it wasn’t super challenging, but it does wear you down. By the time I got to the top, it was 1pm!

The climb visualized moving left to right on the image. I would say the visual is dramatized to enhance elevation change.

After the divide, the GAP is flat. I mean pancake flat. There is technically a slight downhill at a rate of about ten feet per mile. It was already 1:30 by the time I left the divide. I still had 85 miles to cover to get to the campsite. That sounds easy, especially since the sun doesn’t set until about 8. But despite the trail being in immaculate condition, it’s still a trail. Pavement is the best surface for moving quickly, and the crushed stone does add a little drag to your ride.

Mental blocks

Is there a test you can take to measure your resilience? Your ability to overcome adversity? If there is I would like to take it. As positive as I tried to stay during this trip, it was difficult to keep the negative thoughts away. The mile markers were not coming up as quickly as I had hoped. Of course I am hauling a lot of weight on a bike not built for speed. I wound up getting to the campsite very close to dark, just in time to set up my tent quickly and make some potatoes! Despite completing 110 miles of a trail with a never-ending climb at the front end, I didn’t feel accomplished. All I could think was “If you started a few hours earlier, you could have completed the whole trail. Then you would be all the way to Pittsburgh. Now you have to do 40 more miles on this trail in the morning.”

It’s true what they say about these type of challenges, it’s 90% mental. If I was going to fail, it would be due to attitude. Also there was a wonderful opportunity for a sunset photo right around mile 101. Unfortunately I was focused on going another 8 or 9 miles before dark. Just to take a minute to break out the camera could slow me down enough to be setting up in the dark. I did not enjoy not being able to stop.

For a free campsite, this was fantastic. Cedar Creek at mile marker 109

I forgot to mention, since my shoes had not dried from the previous day’s swamp terrain, I used my only other pair of shoes I brought…my hiking boots. 109 miles in these is an accomplishment. Too bad I was dwelling on the negatives.

Not a recommended biking shoe

Too much to do, too little time

I was out of the Cedar Creek campsite by 8. Only about 40 miles to Pittsburgh. I stopped in McKeesport for a snack and then made a wrong turn 8 miles from the end. The turn brings you through a shopping area so I decided on an early lunch at Panera. I got about 1500 calories in me thinking I wouldn’t have to eat for a couple hours. I was trying to get all the way to Cadiz, OH, another 75 miles which Google said would take me another 7 hours. After I got to “The Point” (where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio), I took a few minutes to look around. I had never been to Pittsburgh before, too bad I couldn’t stay long. I found my way out of The Point and took the 376 bridge over the river.

The power of negative thinking

I was nearly off the 376 bridge when suddenly I lost control of the bike. The bike lane is divided from traffic, but it is narrow. Little room for error. I smashed the left side of my bike into the concrete wall and damaged the pannier. My bike being so heavy, continued the fall to the ground. I was sure something was broken. The only thing that broke was the attaching point to the pannier. It is fixable, but I returned to The Point to inform the girlfriend that I was throwing in the towel.

She told me to take a minute and think if that is really what I want to do. It’s just one little hiccup in the ride. She was right. Am I really going to quit because of a little thing like this? I rearranged the attaching points on my front panniers and duct taped the damaged part. I was ready to go again.

It’s just a flesh wound
Good as new

Divine intervention?

I made it over the 376 bridge without hitting anything the second time around. I winded through some neighborhoods and started working up a hill. My backpack on top of the panniers then slid off just a few miles down the road. My entire back rack was lopsided. Poor packing on my part. My bike also fell to the ground as I allowed the handlebars to turn as I was stopped. I called the girlfriend and started talking about quitting again. I was able to power through some long exhausting days of cycling in the previous days. Now that I’m on the road, I suddenly cannot get it together. In that moment I felt defeated. Humbled is a better word. Why was I doing this to myself? I love riding my bike, but I have not enjoyed most of this trip. It’s been too many miles a day in the attempt to get there in 5 weeks. Me losing control of the bike on the bridge, my bag falling off, and then my bike falling to the ground; it may sound odd to you, but this felt like some other force was at work here. I wasn’t tired. I could pedal another 60 miles or so. But for some reason I found myself questioning the series of events over the last hour.

How long would that have stayed on?

Do what you love

I recently had a conversation with a work colleague. It wasn’t a typical “water cooler” conversation, it was a “close the door so nobody hears because this is personal” conversation. After talking through some personal stuff, my colleague gave me several bits of advice, the highlight of which was “do what you love”. Also she said you do need some money, but do what you love if you have bills paid. Some people opt for bills paid and extra money as opposed to bills paid and hobbies. More money usually means peace of mind. I really love the outdoors. I love riding my bike. Do you need to do the things you love to death? As I said, I was not loving most of my time on this trip. I rode over 500 miles in just 6 days (5 1/2 really). But this felt more like work than my actual job. It was great because I had to push myself instead of someone else pushing me. At the end of the day, I am much happier enjoying the nice Pittsburgh weather at The Point than riding through 3 states in one day. It would have been an impressive story to tell if I had made it, and it would have been very satisfying to finish. But I don’t feel like I have to do it anymore. Either because I don’t love killing my legs to try to do a century+ everyday, or because another force was pushing me off my path. Either way, only completing this portion is all the accomplishment I need.

This journey has ended…for now

Would I rather be riding right now? Yes. Would I rather be riding right now trying to make it another 20 miles before sunset? No. This all goes back to doing what you love. Right now I am loving this sunset much more than making another push for a century. In very cliche way, I am letting my aspirations of riding across the country go over the horizon, and I’m okay with that. Had I rode Cadiz, would I have been able to enjoy Pittsburgh and the beautiful sunset? Much like yesterday, I would have missed my chance for a photo of the sunset. Not this time! I’ve learned my lesson. Until the next adventure.

Sunset from “The Point”

One Reply to “Shooting the GAP – biking the Great Allegheny Passage in two days (or less)”

  1. yah dude, don’t be disappointed if you don’t get to California or Cadiz or anywhere else. you planned this on a whim and everyone is already impressed. I know it’s not a leisurely stroll, but you gotta literally stop and smell the roses. your mental game is about miles. you ain’t got no deadline. take it easier bro.

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