Less Zoom, More Pedaling

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A Bike Tour on the Eastern Express Route from Washington, D. C. to Chicago

By Matt Davidson — It's always a good time for a bike tour! When I tour, I am all about enjoying the outdoors, meeting new people, absorbing new smells, and seeing amazing sights which may not be accessible on a car vacation. And there's nothing like the experience of bicycle touring at 10 mph and taking it all in.

Prior to starting my adventure, I trained daily for two months with gallon jugs of water in my panniers. I often rode along a nearly flat dedicated bike path (Murdock Canal Trail) and also regularly climbed the 1,000-foot Suncrest mountain pass, between Lehi and Draper, UT. My skinny chicken legs were ready and were accustomed for days that reached 75 miles carrying 40 lbs, without feeling cramped and spent.

Along with getting physically ready, I wanted to be sure that my well-worn Trek 520 didn't encounter any problems. Mechanically, I spent at least 10-20 hours in total going over my bicycle, ensuring that my brakes, cables, gear shifting, tires, and lubrication were tour ready or replaced and new. As a final check I had an expert bike mechanic at Saturday Cycles inspect my wheels, replacing a broken spoke in the process and also used my local bike shop, Hangar 15 for recommendations on a new hub.

Where to go? Well, after considering a few different routes my friend Lou Melini, a truly knowledgeable and well-traveled bike adventurer, tipped me off to the Eastern Express tour. I changed the overall route and targeted 1,200 miles between Washington, DC and Chicago, Illinois, eventually averaging about 50 miles per day, with a handful of zero-mile R&R days thrown in for good measure.

Smooth sailing! Crushed limestone along the Great Allegheny Passage Trail, near Frostburg, Maryland. Photo by Matt Davidson

This tour I traveled solo and relied on camping, hotels, and Warmshowers. Everyone has a unique pace and style when touring – not necessarily better than other styles, simply different. However, traveling by myself let me set my own schedule, pace, and route itinerary. Certainly, meeting other bicyclists on tour and sharing the road added even more variety to each day. Additionally, not having each day's stop exactly planned out far in advance added to my sense of adventure. Seeing Washington, DC coupled with a sliver of the Eastern U.S. was the original attraction for my ride. What I didn't expect was to tour through a history book and having a geographical tutorial unfold on events I had only read about.

Matt Davidson first sighting the “City of Bridges”. Overlooking downtown Pittsburgh, PA., across Monongahela River’s Hot Metal Street bridge. During WWII, 15% of the United States steel-making capacity crossed Hot Metal Bridge on railroad cars, roughly 4,300 tons per day! Photo by Al Meder

Prior to officially starting the riding portion of my tour, I explored Washington, DC, the center of U.S. government power, and saw major tourist sites including the White House, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, US Capitol, Supreme Court, Library of Congress, National Gallery, African American and Holocaust Museums. In hindsight my complete tour felt like a small part of the back-story leading to present day. At mile zero, my cycling tour began along The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath, built by immigrants and slaves between 1828-1850. Built without the benefit of modern diesel-powered hydraulic machinery, the C&O Canal with its 77 locks spanning 180 miles, is an incredible engineering marvel. I could not help wondering about the long-term vision George Washington and James Monroe had when they put the wheels in motion for this transportation pathway.

Matt Davidson posing by Mason Dixon Line marker on the Pennsylvania Maryland border. It is unlikely that Mason and Dixon ever heard the phrase “Mason–Dixon line”. The official report on the survey, issued in 1768, did not even mention their names. Photo by unknown Bicycle Tourist

As with all major transportation corridors, towns grew up along the canal. However, these towns soon withered with the emergence of the speed and efficiency of railroad transportation. My next chapter of history unfolded starting with Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the site of a major Civil War battle spanning four days from Sept 11-15 in 1862. Riding along the C&O towpath, I envisioned what it must have been like for the Union and Confederate troops, traversing undeveloped forested areas and trying to stay fed, healthy, and alive in extremely challenging circumstances.

Crossed paths in Connelsville PA with Alex, the real Crazy Guy! Unicycling the GAP from Pittsburgh to Washington DC. Photo by Matt Davidson

After relatively easy riding along the C&O and Great Allegheny Passage trails, I entered Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Once gritty and shrouded in soot, Pittsburgh played a significant role in U.S. history and has now transitioned to a vibrant economic powerhouse with skyscrapers and a diverse economy not solely dependent on steel. Steel was one backbone of the Industrial Revolution that helped grow our country – and somewhat similar to today’s tech billionaires Zuckerberg and Bezos, Pittsburgh's shrewd and ruthless steel barons, Carnegie and Frick, played a significant role and definitely affected the country's growth. Historically, the city flourished based on steel production at the apex of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers. My tour took me along these waterways that flow through Southwest Pennsylvania and eventually drain into the Ohio River directly at downtown Pittsburgh.

Rochester, IN to Kokomo, IN. – Smooth sailing along the Nickel Plate Trail. Photo by Matt Davidson

Even today steel still needs coal, and I cycled past heavily laden river barges being guided downstream, floating low with loads headed for furnaces or coke production. But as coal use declined, so did the towns that depend on coal jobs. Some of the towns I rode past felt like they were hanging on by their fingernails because they have not transitioned to new revenue sources. Wheeling, West Virginia was once a thriving town visited by Presidents and now is littered with shuttered storefronts. I wondered how long before they build their economy back based on something other than coal.

Riding through small towns, I avoided national chain businesses, opting to spend my tourist dollars at local shops and restaurants. There was also a trade-off between carrying my own food that gave me the ability to eat whenever I felt hungry versus riding until the next available diner. My preference was to stop and eat lunch at a relaxing park or viewpoint, rather than sitting at a table waiting to be served. Certainly, another benefit of riding solo was a wide-open flexibility on when and where I replenished my calories.

Along Lake Michigan, Lakeshore Drive bike path in Chicago, IL. Photo by Matt Davidson

Reflecting on the overall tour, it renewed my faith in the underlying goodness that exists in our country. Most of the goodness played out with Warmshowers hosts that made my tour extremely interesting and enabled me to peer into their lives during those stays. I found friendly, generous folks in most every town. Maybe that's not groundbreaking news, but it certainly felt good and was a refreshing boost to my daily riding. I avoided political jousting altogether, and when seniors (older than me!) in small towns appeared wary of my Lycra-clad presence, I always started conversations with, “I'm touring this great country of ours.” That statement instantly put strangers at ease. Young and old, almost everyone wants to find out more about a Crazy Guy riding through their town. At the end of the day, every bike tourist wants to experience new situations no matter the challenge and that's the draw of plotting a new ride and meeting new people. I’m already looking forward to my next tour!

Trek 520 Equipment Additions:

  • iPhone Google Maps “bicycle routing option” for navigating departures from ACA map route.
  • Q-Mount Cell Phone Holder – Single handed phone mount and dismount during trip, however, didn’t hold phone securely while using phone case.
  • Salsa 26T Chainring – Granny gear enabled hill climbing with sub-20 gear inches as recommended by sheldonbrown.com
  • Schwalbe Marathon Plus 700x38c – Flat tires: None, nada, zero! Tire width worked well on crushed limestone trails and rocky sections of C&O Towpath.
  • Yokozuna MTB Brake Shoes – Added stopping friction while wet in rain.
  • Click-Stand – Collapsible for storage and performed well with loaded panniers and handy when nothing to lean bike against.
  • Bontrager Trip Computer – Simple mileage odometer, clock, and average speed
  • Bontrager Ion Pro Front Light – USB rechargeable, 1300 – 400 lumen range. Lasts 22 hours for daytime front flashing strobe.
  • Shimano SPD Pedals – Personal preference to be clipped-in, allowing different leg muscle use when needed.
  • Lone Peak Panniers – Originally manufactured in SLC. Handy to have many compartments, but waterproofed panniers would have been better on rainy days!
  • Topeak Morph Pump with Gauge – Used daily to top off tire pressure
  • Planet Bike Rain Fenders – Lightweight. Installation required Reach Around adapter brackets to split both front and rear fenders due to 38c tire height.
  • Avenir Handlebar Bag – Perfect for daily snack and wallet storage. Needed a rainproof cover!
  • Tent Big Agnes Backpacking CopperSpur 1P – Easy & fast to pitch with great compartments. Two-person tent would have allowed some gear storage inside tent rather than under vestibule which is not always 100% dry.
  • Handlebar Bell – any kind works for warning pedestrians far in advance of approach.

Tour stats:

  • Unfriendly people: NONE, at least those I met!
  • Great conversations with people while on tour: 30 +
  • Weight Change: gained 3 lbs (loved the ice-cream and pastries!)
  • Camping Nights: 10
  • Warmshowers Stays: 12
  • Hotels: 7
  • Cars Honking Aggressively while passing: 1
  • Cars Honking with “Aaahhh-Oooogaaa” horn for fun: 1
  • Cars Honking to say “Thank You” for moving over: 2

Total miles, 1,234

Total days, 30

Type of campgrounds:

  • Bike Store Camping
  • YMCA Camping
  • Husky Haven, private Camping
  • KOA Camping
  • State Park Camping
  • City Campground Camping
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