Sunday, July 5, 2015

Harpers Ferry by Tandem

We did it!  I felt so proud of both of us as we stood on the rail bridge making the last 100 yards of the day into Harper's Ferry on the somewhat steamy but nice summer evening this week.  The idea of an overnight B&B trip to Harpers Ferry by bike has intrigued us since we got started biking in DC a couple years ago.  The 60 miles from the Georgetown trailhead seemed pretty daunting and add another 8 miles to our front door and we were looking at the longest distance by almost double that we'd attempted.  And then there is the ride home the next day!

A couple things came together at the right time to give us the push this week though, we had the week off from work planned as a multi-day sailboat cruise on the Potomac River but persistent engine problems made that plan mute.  And about 2 weeks ago my 700C wheel upgrade to the tandem and the 38mm tires were spectacularly successful during our shakedown ride to Great Falls on the C&O.  So with the sudden availability of time coupled to a new found confidence in our tandem-ing abilities we decided to give it a go.  I hastily transferred my Bruce Gordon racks from the Saluki to the Burley and reached out to my friend Joseph to borrow an excellent set of waterproof touring panniers.  I hadn't followed through on my intent to purchase fenders for the tandem yet but the opportunity seemed to perfect to miss and we decided to go without them (the trip definitely reinforced both of our desires for fenders!).

The Bike

Burley Bossa Nova Frame/Fork (1990's...?)
Phil Wood 700C wheels, Compass 38mm Barlow Pass standard casing
Moustache bar's with Brooks Flyer sprung saddles
Diacompe Canti brakes
Sugino crankset (triple) with 8 spd rear cassette (only 7 speeds reachable due to short chain)
Bruce Gordon cro-mo racks with ortlieb panniers and carradice longflap saddle bag

The Route

137 miles, split pretty much evenly. Tuesday outbound C&O Canal Towpath all the way to Harpers Ferry.  Wednesday we diverted at Whites Ferry to Rt 15 into Leesburg and picked up the W&OD and then Four Mile Run Trail back to Del Ray.

Trail Conditions

We've had an awfully wet summer and even had rain overnight during our trip so the towpath was in pretty rough shape.  Between miles 22-26ish there was a lot of mud patches that spanned the entire trail width with thick mud or standing water.  We got better about navigating them as we went and eventually just plowed through most of them but to begin with we did dismount and walk through a couple till we got the hang of powering through safely.  Other mud was pretty common between Point of Rocks and Harpers Ferry.  There was a short patch of towpath as you enter Brunswick that is shared with vehicles, that stretch is a MESS.  Significant potholing which caused our second flat tire of the day.  We ended up walking this stretch after flatting on Tues and as a preventative measure Weds.  The W&OD felt amazing after a day and a half on the C&O... :)

Doesn't really show the potholes but the work crew was actually there filling in holes on Wednesday as we passed, when I asked if they were filling holes they said - 'More like re-grading the road', and laughed. So at least Brunswick knows this section is in need of maintenance!

Nothing that stopped the trip or soured it in any way so that's the good news. We did have two flat tires on the rear wheel, lost the timing chain at one point and had the captains saddle get loose.  The flat's were the  most impactful and both on Tuesday. The first one I missed a significant pothole just past Great Falls with the front tire and hit it hard with the rear... the flat was almost instantaneous.  The second one as I mentioned was less avoidable as the road/trail near Brunswick was a mess, it was also pretty quick. Both pinch flats which points to underinflation on the rear tire. I'm going to play around with pressures and see if I can still manage to use the nice supple Compass tires long term. I was running ~60psi to begin with and then after the tube changes I couldn't gauge but would guess 65-75psi.... I also have been musing about going tubeless as an option here.  The second day we shifted about 10 lbs of gear up to the front panniers to help reduce the weight on the rear axle.

The most stressful thing about the flats was exhausting my spare tube supply... I had 2 spare tubes and both were needed as I failed to successfully patch either tube that flatted. The little blue box park kit patches were pretty large and I kept getting edges that didn't seal and therefore didn't work. Bottom line was that we had about 5 miles on Tues and 25 miles on Weds with no backup tube available and that was not a good feeling. I was able to buy new tubes in Leesburg which never got used thank goodness!

The timing chain was just an unfortunate incident of leaning the bike against a tree which jacked the chain off the crank... I had to mess with the eccentric BB to reset and ended up with crank arms no longer in sync for the rest of the trip which did make starting and stopping a bit of a mess.  I plan to replace both chains before our next major trip and I'll get the crank arms re-sync'd at the same time.

The saddle going loose was a pretty quick re-position and tighten the one bolt Kalloy post securing the saddle. It does make me want to go to a two bolt post as I'd hate to have this problem at a time when the bike was at speed or in a tricky maneuvering situation.

Comfort/Ride Quality

This was the longest ride by far for both of us on the tandem, the longest of the year for me on any bike and the longest ever for Erika ever.  It was also the biggest two day mileage total for either of us ever.  A lot of firsts so I'm pretty happy with how we faired physically from the challenge.  The biggest impact to either of us is our hands.  We both got what appears to be textbook cases of 'cyclists palsy', or numbing of the ring and pinky finger along with overall lack of strength in the hand.  Even two days after the ride we both have some lingering affects though they seem to be improving steadily with time.  From what we've both read it looks like lessening the weight on the hands is the key, and there are multiple ways to go about it.  We'll be experimenting with some different handlebar configurations including raising them up, swapping with some different bars, padding, orientation and so forth.  I love the double Moustache Bar look but if it results in the hand numbness like this all the time I'll get over the aesthetics and go for something comfy!

Flora and Fauna

Any off-road trek of this distance should come with some natural wonders and the C&O didn't disappoint.  I lost count of the number of turtles we saw sunning themselves in the canal, and of course heron's everywhere including the bluest blue heron I've ever seen in person.  But I expected to see turtles and heron's, the wild turkey, deer, owl's and large hawk/eagle bird of prey we saw were bonuses for sure.  We went miles without seeing any other people which was also cool.  

This Red Eared Slider was chilling on the trail close to Harpers Ferry.

On the flora side I can't overstate how impressed by the massive old hardwood tree's that are adjacent to the towpath.  I think this is a really undersold feature, like the turtles I lost count of the number of trees that were so wide I'd be unable to even reach halfway around them.  Not all are as grandly photogenic as this specimen below but the number of trees that were old when our young country decided we needed a canal here and still persist today is awesome and an attraction in my opinion!

We dubbed this tree the Whomping Willow. incidentally this shot of the tandem adding scale is also what caused the slipped timing chain... I think it was worth it!
The Destination - Harpers Ferry

We'd visited Harpers Ferry before but always by car.  Our friend Erl who met us on the towpath and rode with us to Great Falls warned me that at the end of the trail there would be a big staircase to get up to the rail bridge crossing the Potomac and I'm glad he did.  Even though I was anticipating this final challenge it was still a beast.  Erika lugged the four big loaded panniers while I shouldered the tandem and went 3-4 steps at a time up this 3 story-ish flight.  Going down was better the next day though still a problem.  There are bike racks for you to leave bikes on the trail side for quicker trips into town which is a nice thing to have but given our overnight stay I wasn't leaving the tandem.

The view from the towpath just before the crossing the bridge
Victory shot's up on the bridge.
Our B&B (Camp Hill B&B) was up the hill from downtown a bit and given that it was already close to 7pm we decided to grab dinner before heading up.  We were about to go into a place on the lower street when a local gentleman heartily recommended the Town Inn.   Walking the tandem we moved around to the Town Inn and settled in on the 2 top right at the top of the entry stairs where we had an excellent view of the town, the MARC station and High St (good people watching).  The local amber lager was like nectar and the pan fried trout was so good we're still talking about it days later.  Any meal after a supreme effort like this is bound to be memorable but we were very satisfied by the Town Inn.

The Town Inn the next morning.

I checked out a number of B&B/AirBnB's asking about tandem storage and so forth. Tony at Camp Hill called me back first and we had a lovely stay.  It is at the top of the hill but it's only .4 miles from Town's Inn which isn't that bad and I think if we'd gotten in an hour earlier we would have gone up to shower and change and then walked back down to town.  We stayed in the 'Carriage House' suite, which is the larger and more expensive ($180 in season) of the two accommodations.  The luxury of having a full living room, kitchen, bathroom and bed was worth it to us on this occasion.  Tony was an excellent host and the eggs and bacon breakfast accompanied by a fruit cup was also very good.  The carriage house does have a loft with a second full bed and I think splitting this place with another touring couple actually would make it a good value as well as a comfortable B&B.

We didn't do much other exploring in Harpers Ferry given that we wanted to get moving the next day but it was a great visit, seeing all the AT thru hikers was a fun bonus to.  We talked about making a 3 day trip with friends (come on Joe and Ali!) where it would be Day 1 - bike to Harpers, Day 2 - hike/hang out in Harpers, Day 3 - bike home.  Fall might be a great time for that trip.

We didn't stay long enough for the outfitter to open but Harpers seems an obvious location for one of those great bike consumables vending machines and complimentary work station.  All hours access to tubes, chain lube and so forth would be great.  The full service bike shop in Brunswick was unhelpfully closed on Wednesday so Leesburg ended up being the closest shop.

The Ride Home - Whites Ferry, Leesburg and the W&OD

Aside from the disappointment about Brunswick's bike shop being closed and the short stretch of bad trail there the 25 miles from Hapers to Whites Ferry was splendid though the muddiest of our trip due to the overnight rain.

Bottom tube and timing chain coated with fresh slop
Our new found mud coping skills worked out well and we plowed through with ease.  This was one of the best stretches we had on the trail and it went by pretty quickly.  

Whites Ferry from the picnic tables

The Burley was charged as a single bike, $2 for the transit!

I didn't get alot of pictures of the last 40ish miles from Leesburg back to DC but it was a really fun and entirely different experience than the rest of the trip.  We chose to finish on the W&OD for a couple reasons, first it gave us the opportunity to resupply on inner tubes at a bike shop in Leesburg, second it offered excellent lunch options all along the way, third it offered escape from the muddy trail conditions on the C&O and finally it was different...  All reasons were valid and the way we went home really defined the day. We stopped at Fireworks Pizzaria in Leesburg where we were shown to the furthest table in the back corner probably due to the pile of wet panniers and mud head to toe!  Then we popped into the Old Ox Brewery in Ashburn, Green Lizard Cylces for espresso and the new Caboose Brewery in Vienna.  The W&OD has so many 'attractions' along the way these days it almost felt more of a bar crawl than a bike ride.  We arrived home and neither of us really felt like we'd put in 70 miles that day.  I'd say that is a roaring success!

I'll wrap it up with some more random pictures from the trip, I heartily encourage anyone in the area to give this trip or a version of it a try. Let us know if you do!

Erl's sweet Rivendell Atlantis on the C&O, he me up with us at Fletchers Boat house and gave us an escort up to Great Falls.

Erika and I outside the Camp Hill B&B, the owner Tony is also a woodcarver and did this great memorial in his front yard.

The Monocacy Aqueduct was frickin sweet, this thing is a marvel of engineering/longevity and looks to be in great shape.

This group was enroute to DC from Pittsburgh in the aqueduct.

One of the still sections of the canal where the algae was making interesting shapes in the water.

An aptly named/chosen Coke was DELICIOUS on Whites Ferry.

Tied up at Old Ox Brewery, just before a bit of a shower came through and soaked everything.

We avoided getting thoroughly drenched the entire trip till 2 miles from the finish when it opened up... no finish line pictures as there was a monsoon happening at our place.  Great trip though!