Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tour 2, Day 1

With the weekend drawing nearer, the weather forecast started to become much more foremost in my mind. When we planned this, the 10 day outlook was calling for a low of just under 30 overnight. That's only a couple of degrees cooler than when the Pickle and I went. Plus, we were taking a fleece blanket that I got for Christmas and also planned on zipping the bags together. That should easily make a nice warm bed for around 28F.

Science is a funny thing. You can learn everything there is to conceivably know about how something works; you can go to school, master your craft, even bring in expensive computers to crunch all the numbers. However, regardless of your level of education, experience, or deal you've made with Lucifer, when you're a meteorologist, let's be're just fucking guessing.

The forecast for Sunday, and Monday, started to alter wildly, hour to hour and across different 'authoritative' sources. Two days out, The Weather Channel's website was showing a low of 19, the National Weather Service was showing 26, and the local news for the area was showing 30. One day before we ride, they all pretty much just looked at each other and traded. Not knowing who to really believe, we planned for the worst of the three and subtract 5 degrees... which, by Saturday afternoon was an overnight low of 24 and a Sunday high around 35.

We got on the bikes at about 10:30A.M. Sunday morning. It was 26 degrees with a 30mph headwind. The temperature never really went up from there.

My biggest concern had been Big D's fingers and toes. Because she, like many other women, possesses a vagina, and is therefore always colder than me. I think the vagina acts as some sort of primitive radiator... . I don't know. That said, she was tricked out with chemical toe warmers, wool socks, and wind proof booties over her shoes. She had these gargantuan split mitten glove like contraptions called lobster claws that make her look like a Sleestack from the “Land of the Lost” and a second pair of gloves inside of those.

About 2 miles in, I was the one having the problem. The gloves I had bought for colder (that's 'colder', not 'cold') weren't working. We were going to have to either solve the problem now, or turn back. Fortunately, D had a different pair of gloves she could put under the Sleestacks and gave me what she had been using that barely squeezed into my gloves as a liner. That seemed to fix the issue and we pressed on.

Everything was frozen and pretty barren. We had hoped for this for one reason: Mud abatement. The Pickle and I discovered the collective suck that is a muddy C&O two weeks early, and D and I were not looking for a repeat. The puddles were frozen over, but my 100lb bike would crunch through to the little bit of liquid water below. While this gave me a satisfaction similar to what you get from popping bubble wrap, it would come back to haunt me later. The headwind (sometimes a side-ish head wind) kept slowing us down and trying to push us off the trail. The bikes, when loaded, are a lot like driving a loaded lorry. They have a tendency to go where they want, and you have to kind of ride it out, especially over the puddles.

We stopped for lunch in the ruins of an old Lock House. It gave us the chance to get out of the wind and soak up some sun. It was about the 12 mile point, so it also gave us a chance to discuss our options and check our status. 12 miles was any easy ride back if we wanted to call it off, and heading forward was going to be a commitment. Point of Rocks was about 18 miles up the trail and, and I knew there was a solid convenience store there that would be open and have coffee. We decided to press.

We continued crunching along the trail, over and through the iced-over puddles for a couple more hours, taking breaks here and there. It was really quiet. Even near the access points there wasn't really a soul to be seen, accept for the occasional bird watcher. No one really wanted to be outside I guess. It's rare to find that kind of quiet in MD. The trail has a character all its own. Sometimes it's a friendly, smooth hard-packed surface that almost helps you along. Then its mood changes and it's a soggy, rutted, unfriendly bitch. The Park's Service Vehicles leave just enough of an imprint that in locations less frequently used, it's a clearly defined double snake trail. You have to choose between the tire tracks, which are littered with iced or partly iced puddles, or the middle, which has weeds and grass and tends to be pretty choppy.

We came to a placed devoid of tree cover and the Sun had been on it. Even in the low temperatures, the ice had melted under the Sun and the double snake trail became an angry sloth. Our tires flipped muddy water up onto everything (we don't have fenders...yet), and the going was slow for a bit. We were glad to get back to the shade. We had no idea that that section of trail was put there by the trail gods as a warning. We would find out soon enough the harbinger it was.

At about 25 miles in we started to notice dragging sounds on our wheels. The funny thing about riding a long distance in sub-freezing temperatures. Get this: Shit freezes. What shit freezes? All...shit...freezes. We had anticipated our caged water bottles freezing (which they had), but we didn't think about all the water and mud that had been flipping up onto our bikes freezing. Yeah, it was cathartic like bubble wrap to pop those puddles, but now we were paying for it mechanically. Every drop of water and splatteration of mud had frozen to wherever it had landed. D hadn't used her front derailleur to change gears yet, and that’s good, because she wasn't going to. We had cement-hard stalagmites growing under the breaks, between the frame and the tires, on the pulley wheels, cables, derailleurs—everything. We had to make repeated stops to whack mud out of critical components and the tires to keep things moving. Mud even grew up from my bottom water bottle until it rubbed the tire. But it didn't stop our fun, we kept calm, and Chived on.

About 3miles from Point of Rocks, D's feet started to get cold. The toe warmer had quit her. We pulled into POR at the convenience store and took about a 30 minute break. The sun was beating down on the store front, so I let the bikes thaw a bit and took the opportunity to knock off some of the goofy mud formations. The shop keeper and a couple of customers were interested in what we were doing, so we had some fun conversations while we drank our coffee.

A rewarding aspect of traveling off the beaten path, and in a manner that people find unique, is that everyone wants to be part of it a little bit. It's interesting and different. When people see the loaded bikes, they are curious and want to know everything you'll tell them about what you're doing, where you came from and what you plans are. I look forward to a lot more of that in the future. I imagine I'm going to meet some pretty interesting folks doing this.

We made it to camp about 4:15p.m. It was 28F when we stopped pedaling. We were between Point of Rocks and Brunswick at a hiker/biker campsite called “Bald Eagle Island”. It wasn't an island. I couldn’t even see an island. And of course, it was next to the train tracks—again. At least there weren't any track crossings nearby, and hence, no requirement for trains to blow their horns as they passed.

The temperature was dropping pretty quickly so we didn't mess around. After throwing the tent up, D set to putting our bed together and organizing our belongings while I gathered a metric ass-load of firewood. I had prepared some cotton balls with petroleum jelly in a bag before we left as a fire starter. If you've never done that, try it. One cotton ball will burn a 3 inch tall flame for over 5 minutes. I used 3. I wanted a fire and I didn't want a discussion about it.

We ended up having a pretty kick ass fire, which was great while we made dinner. We had backpacker food like the last time. We had planned on cooking but decided the cold weather was something we'd rather not do dishes in. Once the Sun had been down about 30 minutes, we figured there was no sense burning up the rest of our wood to stay warm and headed to the tent.

After being in the bags for about 30 minutes. D started getting cold. That is never a good sign when you have a long night ahead of you and it's not even 8 o'clock. I got her warmed up again with body heat, but I didn't want to deal with this at 2 in the morning, and decided to just go get the space blanket. The space blanket (if you've never used one) is a piece of Mylar impregnated with magic ferry dust or something that makes it reflect 90% of incoming heat. It's crinkly like tin foil, but stupid warm. We started out with it on top of our bags, but it kept running away, so we pinned it between our bags and out fleece blanket. There were no more issues with cold that night.

The overnight low was 16F, and the winds blew almost constantly. Aside from a couple VERY quick bathroom outings, we slept pretty well.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Moving Forward

The next round of light bike touring is scheduled for this weekend.  Big D and I are going to head out on Sunday, camp, and return Monday.  The temperature is going to be a little cooler than last time, with an overnight low forcasted at 25.

We're trying a couple of different things.  To mitigate the cold, we'll be zipping our mummy bags together.  That should help generate more than enough heat to make up for the 7 degree reduction in temp.  Pickles and I were just on the edge of being cold last time in our individual bags.  Combined with warm clothes to sleep in, this should be fine.

We're abandoning the backpacker prepackaged food.  We figure that's not something that's going to be readily available at any time during a longer tour, so there's no point depending on it now.  It's lightweight and easy to make, but it's not the reality of our future doing this so it's out.  Our dinner this time will be flavored rice (in a package) cooked with chicken.  We'll cook the chicken beforehand, chop it up, and bag it to add to our rice.  We'll pack a lunch for the first day, and grab lunch (probably in Brunswick) on the way back.  For breakfast D is going to have instant grits, and I'm just going with Ramen noodles. (which are actually one of my favorite foods)

I've applied a metric ass-load of saddle oil to my Brooks Leather Saddle.  Last trip, it occurred to me that it was nowhere near as broken in as it should be by now.  This was due to me not reading the directions because I'm a dude and that's just how that goes. 

We've borrowed a set of Arkel T-54 panniers.  They're a bit larger than the Ortlieb bags that I have already, and include a fabric attachment for carrying your tent.  We should be able to get more of our gear in the bags and less strapped to the platform.  That will give the bikes a bit of a lower center of gravity and make them easier to handle.  The Arkel bags also have a lot of compartmented pockets that will allow us to have access to things without dismantling everything, or digging to the bottom of a bag. (The Ortleibs are basically just a big waterproof bag)

All in all, it should be a good trip.  It'll be colder, but we have the necessary gear to keep us warm, both while riding and camping.  I'm going to try and take more pictures this time and some better video as well.  Last trip I was more focused on just getting it done.

More to come.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Tour 1 Day 2

After a night of less than stellar sleep fighting trains and wishing I'd had a pillow, dawn was actually a pretty welcoming sight. It was about 32F, but the sky was clear and the Sun was cutting through the trees and in a way saying, “I want to warm your feet.”

The Sun was also a big fat liar. It didn't warm my feet. Screw you Sun.

As I got out of the tent, I flolloped my sleeping bag on top of Pickles; putting her into a deep coma. I powered up my nuclear powered stove and made some hot cider in about 34 seconds, which was nice. I'd wanted to have coffee, but harkening back to car camping, and being an idiot, all I thought of doing was putting some instant coffee in a small container and that just sounded like too much work. Karyn pointed out later that Starbucks makes single serve packets. I'd not thought of that. Yeah, that's me, I thought of single serving INSTANT CIDER...but I couldn't come up with decent coffee.

This is why I don't build spaceships. Some poor crew would be half way to Mars and ask, “Why didn't he just vent our urine into space?”

After breakfast we decided to alter our route home; for two main reasons. Another day of mud on the C&O trail might actually cause Athena to stab a young child, and we really would rather see different scenery in a spirit of continuing an adventure instead of just 'heading home'. So, we planned a farily straight forward road route through farm country that would drop us back onto the C&O with about 10 miles to go. We also figured, since it's pavement and all, that it would be faster traveling and give us more time to goof off.

There was one flaw in that theory. Maps are flat. MD is not. (For a complete disertation on the non-flatness of MD, please check out The farm roads in MD are designed with the natural flow of the Earth's contours in mind. More to the point, they are designed to ignore them. After 30 some miles of straight up and straight down we'd managed to better our MPH average from the previous day by a whopping 1. But, we did get to see different scenery. Some went by really fast, some not so much. Athena still maintained that it was better than the mud.

We did manage to have enough extra time to stop for lunch. I'd read in a book (I know...don't even start with me.) that you should try to acquire food along the way. I took that advice when planning, but I also failed to plan for 'what if there is no food along the way?' By about 3 in the afternoon we were getting pretty hungry. We found a rather upscale tavern near Great Falls with white table cloths outside and figure that was good enough.

After lunch, the last 9.5 miles went by in a blink and Big D met us with Alexis in tow about 15 minutes later.

So, all in all, lessons learned:

Miles don't matter. It may seem obvious, but until you're pedaling 100lbs of bike down a muddy dirt road, whatever expectations you had from either mt. biking or road cycling go out the window. Athena and I planned (loosely) on a goal of 62 miles. We made just under 50. We managed an average rolling speed of 10.3 mph. Factoring in stopping for clothing adjustments, bathroom and food breaks, etc., we left at 1030 and arrived at about 1615. So almost 6 hours to ride almost 50 miles. We only increased our MPG average by 1 using the roads due to the climbing.

Pains. Spending that much time in the saddle constantly pedaling a heavy load makes you VERY aware of even the smallest misalignment in posture, or geometric adjustment. I have a sore Achilles tendon, we both had sore necks, Athena had a sore knee...even sore shoulders. All of this was due to bad posture that we don't notice under normal conditions. I need to move my cleat further back on my shoe (Achilles), we need to ditch the mt. bike helmets with visors (causing the neck pain) and make sure our saddles are in perfect position from the handlebars (shoulders). I've been riding my bike this way and my shoes this way for years and never had these issues.

Over packing. Why did we take two bike tools? Why did we take 2 Co2 dispensers & hand pump? Why did we take so many flashlights? There was only two of us and 1 tent, and between the Cateye handlebar lights (2), mini LED flashlight (150L), and a L/M Stella 300 that we never used, it was a lot of extra weight. Too many clothes. That jersey I had on over my Underarmor on day one? Yeah, no reason it couldn't have been the one for the next day, but I brought two.

That's not to say we didn't do some things right. We did. Obviously we made it there and back, camped, and aside from an elective lunch at a cafe we required no outside support. So we did fine. Our plan to be flexible and camp where daylight dictated instead of having a hard destination was huge. It would have been nothing but stressful if we thought we had to get to that 62 miles destination, even if that meant pitching camp in the dark.

Friday, February 3, 2012

First Tour, Day 1

Saturday morning, I had the bikes all loaded, including some...what has been termed ‘Euro-style’... packing arrangements using bungee cords.  Karyn was set to drive us to our launch point, but took umbrage to the idea that I was going to put both the bikes on her Jeep's hitch rack loaded as they were. 

“You can’t put those loaded like that on my Jeep!”
“They’re too heavy.”
“Your hitch is designed for a trailer, the tongue weight is way less than that of a trailer.”
“They’re going to make my Jeep lopsided.”
“I have a vagina.”

After unpacking the bikes and loading up the Jeep.  We made it to our start point at Fletcher’s Boat house (about 3 miles from the start of the C&O Trail) by about 1015. 

It took a little bit to get used to the handling of a loaded bike.  My bike, empty, was just under 40 lbs (Trek 520 with three cages, pedals, and rear rack).  With 2x2400ci panniers, sleeping mat, tent, sleeping bag, 3 water bottles, and a bell, it was weighing in over 80lbs (Though it could have been anywhere between 80 and 100).  Also, with most of that weight in the rear (so to speak), the front becomes almost too light and skids out easier than you might imagine.  Wheelies and reverse endos are surprisingly easy.

We really didn’t have any idea what kind of speed we’d make, though we were hoping for 11-12 mph average rolling speed.  At first we were making that, but as the surface of the trail gave way from hard-packed gravel to mud, we lost a lot of that speed and ended up pulling an average of just over 10mph for the day.  Which still isn’t bad.  We ran into a detour at the 9.4 mile mark, due to construction, that pushed us off the C&O and onto a sort of walking trail above the river.  This trail wasn’t well suited for a loaded bike…it was hella bumpy and slow going, but we were only on it about a mile so whatever.  The problem came at the end of the detour.

We had to go down some wooden steps, and across this bridge over the canal that went around a lock house.  To get back down to the C&O, we had to then traverse a long flight of steep wooden steps.  Not an easy task with a bike loaded the way these were.  I managed to control my bike walking it down, but I think if there’d been two more steps Athena would have lost it.  It was close.

We stopped at great falls for a lunch break.  One interesting aspect of this sort of endeavor is the interactions with other people.  I’d say it was partly due to the fact that we were going camping in January, but given how warm the day was, I don’t think it was a significant notion in people’s minds.  People find what you’re doing very interesting.  It’s not so much a ‘I can’t believe you would do that.’ sort of thing as it is a general curiosity.  While we were eating, a couple of families stopped to talk to us; asked us where we were headed and checked out the bikes, etc.  Depending on where you’re from, this may seem like no big deal, but out here in MD, where you barely get any kind of acknowledgement that you exist by the person at the checkout register, it’s a big deal.  People just generally stay out of each other’s way and lives here.

Of course, I took the opportunity of a visitor’s center to poop.  I think it’s safe to say that you should always poop when a good opportunity presents itself, and the next one may be far down the path.  I am a pooper of opportunity. 

As we headed north from Great Falls, the number of couples, families, old people, dogs, unattended children, and creepy people running in jeans dropped off dramatically as we moved into more wildernessy country.  It’s important to note that in MD, wilderness is any area of land wherein you can pivot 360 degrees and not see a building, cell tower, or discarded condom.   The trail out here also gets less care.  Very heavy bikes meet mud.  Mud meet Athena.  Athena begins to rage.

Our speed began dropping off dramatically.  In fact, I was able to devise a mathematical formula: 
R∝((tm2) (v(μ))  Where R = Rage (Of Athena), t = time, m= mud and v = velocity.  
So, Athena’s rage is proportional to the time of mud travel, times mud squared times the square root of the proportional average of velocity.  After 2 and a half hours of our tires sinking over an inch into the mud, Athena’s rage had reached critical levels.   She was not…a happy Pickle. 

We had originally, and mind you without any data to back up this assertion, hoped to make it as far as a hiker/biker campground about 2 miles beyond Harpers Ferry.  At 3 O’clock, it became apparent that based on our current speed and Athena’s rising urge to kill, we weren’t going to make it as far we’d thought.  And that was fine, it was an arbitrary destination to begin with.  So we made it as far as Point of Rocks, MD where there was a nice h/b campsite with a table and a toilet.

We pitched camp, no big deal there, ate our dinner by a fire, played some cards and watched a video on the iPhone.   It  was nice to get off the bikes and comfortable.  I had noticed when we stopped that there were some train tracks about 30 yards from our camp.  I mentioned to Athena we’ll probably hear a train or two in the night, and we laughed.  I had also made a mistake in my estimation that “there were some train tracks about 30 yards from our camp.” 

The truth was this:  There was a railed transportation, multi-track juggernaut capable of bending light waves and operated by Usama Bin Ladin’s dick ghost about 30 yards from our camp.  Oh, and it was also ill tempered.  We counted no less than 15 trains through the night.  Since there was also a boat ramp with a track crossing about ¼ mile from us, every…single…train blew its whistle for what seemed like 35 minutes as they passed our little tent.  Incidentally, tent fabric does nothing to mitigate angry train noises.  Both of us were turning the air blue at one point or another as we would just be getting a period of actual sleep in between tossings and turnings just to have it interrupted by another…god…damn…train.

It was also cold, but that wasn’t a big deal.  We managed.

The evening and the morning were the first day.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Best Laid Plans

     Big D and I bought a couple of touring bikes well over a year ago2 years in fact.  We had grandiose aspirations of seeing the country side on two wheels.  There was one problem:  We get sidetracked by even the faintest shiny object.  So, about as far as we ever got was good intentions.  This summer were gonna…”  This spring were gonna…”  -- And it just never happened.  We almost scrapped the plans altogether late last year, but I have to credit Karyn for kicking up some renewed interest which kind of spurred us back into it.  Despite the fact that we had owned the bikes for so long, when I decided a month ago to start, and start now (to avoid another gonna moment), it occurred to me that there was one problem.  We didnt have shit.
     Not only did we not have the bulk of what we needed to sustain ourselves while out of reach of hearth and home, we also didnt know squat about it.  I had been backpacking a lot as a kid, and we all know how to car camp, but doing it on a bike is whole other situation.  But how hard could it be?  I mean, get some bags, throw some stuff in there and start pedalingsort of.  The bikes at this point are in storage, without pedals, and had also been cannibalized for bottle cages for our new road bikes.  They hadnt been ridden in a few months.  We owned some very small commuter panniers (fold outs), but thats it.  It was also going to be late January.  Soyou knowice.

     I figured Id get a leg up by leveraging the wisdom to be had by the ladies' connections at the shop.  All the guys there, for the most part, are into touring and know a lot about it.  I needed to know what bags to buythat as the big thinghow many bags Id need for a couple of days, and any other insight they may have on various subjects.  The fun thing about asking a group of experts about the same thing:  None of them agree about a single.fucking.thing.  And every one of them is actually correct.  And I dont mean that sarcastically.  Given any different situation and personal preference, there were no wrong answers.  I just didn’t have enough of a clue to interpret, Do whatevers right for your style man. into This is the shit I need so just buy it.  

     In the end, I settled on a pair of Ortlieb rear panniers.  I got the ones that are rubberized and waterproof.  They had some that had more outside pockets and were a bit more expensive, but these were good bags that had a lot of capacity, were easy to take on and off, and came in red.  I would later find out that they were also completely the wrong bags and 4 experts watched me buy them who would later advise that I should buy Arkels.  But Ill get into that later.  Personally, and especially at that moment, Im in love with my big red bags and it made me smile. 

     I already had a camping stove, a little one that burns Coleman fuel, white gas, gasoline, kerosene, diesel, lamp oil, 10-W30, alcohol, bourbon, melted crayons, and liquid hydrogen.  Its pretty cool, though a bit counterintuitive in the fact that the fuel line runs through the burner.  This is actually necessary to convert liquid fuel to a gas to operate, but it still feels a lot like youre going to explode.  We got a good deal on some Thermarest mats. And I already had a Kelty 2-person tent.  The rest was just packing and planning.

     We decided, since it was the first time, wed make use of the C&O Canal trail.  Its a trail that used to be the tow path for the old C&O canal that ran barges pulled by horses.  It shadows the Potomac River from D.C. to Cumberland, MD.  The great thing about this trail is that it has about 30 hiker/biker camp sites that are free to use.  Its also flat, and passes by a lot of towns (just in case).  I dont have a problem with dispersed, or covert camping, but this is central MD., not AZ, and it just isnt that easy to plop down a tent wherever youre tired.  Theres also the issue of finding places to poop.  It doesnt seem like that would be an issue, but it can be.  The downside to the C&O is that the scenery doesnt really change that much.  Its pretty much: river on the right, canal on the left, dont hit that dog.

     Bags and food acquired, we got the bikes loaded and serviced.   I had this nagging suspicion as we got closer to the ride that I may have over packed.  YesI may have.  I had 2 jerseys, 1 pair of Windstopper tights (with Chamois), one pair of bike shorts, Windstopper baggy pants (no Chamois), 3 underarmor style shirts, one long sleeve wicking shirt, sweat pants, 3 pairs of socks, a pair of underwear, one beanie hat and one balaclava, 2 pairs of gloves, my primary riding jacket, and finally, my Gortex rain jacket.  We were going to be gone 1 night.  Do the mathbecause I didnt.  I also over packed miscellaneous gear.  But Ill get more into that later.

For rain or ruin, we were set to go.  Karyn would take us to the drop point at Fletchers Boathouse, and Big D would pick us up the next day.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Rolling On this on?

Like my brand new panniers, this blog is fresh and new, with a clean look and zero miles.  I started this new blog to coincide with my first foray into the realm of bicycle touring.  This tome will be expressly focused on what I hope will be a robust series of adventures had on a bike.

My first tour has been planned for the last weekend in Jan, 2012.

Annnnd Go!