First day on the C&O

Yeah, we needed a rest day. Everyone agreed. We spent the day in Cumberland taking care of little things, re-stocking, enjoying a fine Italian dinner at Ristorante Ottaviani (recommended by other cyclists) and resting. 157 miles of cycling doesn’t really seem like all that much to me in retrospect, but the day after day grind really does have a cumulative exhausting effect.

But having rested, we were all eager to launch into the second half of the trip: the C&O Canal National Historical Trail, which runs for about 185 miles from Cumberland MD to Washington DC. The skies were blue, the air was fresh and warm, and the trail just seemed to be calling us out of the hotel. We obliterated the complimentary hotel breakfast and saddled up as soon as possible.

The C&O is a very is different sort of trail. Unlike the finely groomed GAP, it consists of moderately rough double-track for most of the way, with tree roots and mud puddles every few hundred feet. It reminded me of long-ago days in Massachusetts when I would mountain bike with friends in the forests: mostly flat, mildly technical, and a lot of fun.

But my compatriots were not as sanguine. Bert’s e-bike battery was reduced to the lowest daily level we’ve seen so far, due to mileage (45 miles by the end) and higher effort needed to overcome the rough gravel. Adam and Susan felt it was tougher than the first part of the GAP, too. I felt like it was a breeze in comparison to the GAP, so I guess I’m finally over the bug that slowed me down last week, and I feel a lot less like a weenie now.

In any case this was the longest and hardest section of the C&O, so it is literally and figuratively all downhill from here. Not much downhill, mind you, but at least mostly level and no significant climbing.

The old long-abandoned locks and lock keepers houses are scenic and interesting, but unfortunately you can’t go inside the houses. For us, the engineering marvels of aqueducts (one example pictured above) and the 3,000 foot Paw Paw Tunnel were the big thrills of the day.

In the Paw Paw it is dark and slightly treacherous footing on a narrow tow path, with other cyclists coming in the pitch dark, so walking the bike is the only practical option. The trip through takes quite a while as a result, and I found it delightfully spooky.

Long distance riders recommended to Bert that he try something called Butt Balm for the inevitable chafing that occurs during rides like this. We all mocked him mercilessly at the beginning but gradually we’ve conceded that Butt Balm (or similar products such as Chamois Butt’R) has its place, so to speak. And except Susan, we’ve been applying the stuff to that place. I have it on good authority that she will be the next convert, starting tomorrow.

The bike shop mechanic in Cumberland said I would be fine with my existing tires (700C x 32) and he was right. His recommendation was that anything from 32 to 38 would be appropriate. But the trail is dry and the muddy spots are mostly firm. I still think that if the trail were wet I would want something a little wider and with more aggressive tread.

We’ve overlapped with a lot of tour groups on the C&O, more than on the GAP. Most of them are supported by vans that carry their luggage, so they have an easier time of it. If you’d like to do this ride but are worried about your cycling ability I’d definitely recommend checking a tour guide out.

Today’s trip ended in Little Orleans MD, which is a tiny town with few resources for cyclists passing through. There is one restaurant, which unfortunately for us is closed on Tuesday nights. Forewarned of this, we brought some food along to scab together a semblance of dinner. There is also only one place to stay, but it’s a great one: Town Hill B&B. To get to it requires a 20 minute shuttle, which the inn provides cheerfully, and at the end we found ourselves in a sweet historic inn that knows how to cater to cyclists.

So after a dusty and humid day of harder-than-expected cycling, I am comfortably settled on the couch in the inn’s living room with a complimentary tea and feeling extremely civilized with the memory of a long hot shower in my recent past. This beats the hell out of tent camping. Perhaps it is because of these comforts that after 200 miles and six day of togetherness we are still all having a wonderful time, and already talking about the next trip.


  1. says

    We componded a similar ‘butt balm’ for years during my past life. Simply (a) vaseline, (b) zinc oxide powder, and (c) the secret mystery ingredient, Peruvian Balsam.

    Balsam of Peru is used in perfumes and toiletries for fragrance, and pharmaceutical items for healing. It has a sweet conifer scent. Forms a moisture-proof barrier blocking out ammonia-causing bacteria that lead to diaper rash, biker buns, or a bacterial/yeast infection.

    The real bonus, if you fart (and you do), it smells like a pine forest…your companions will appreciate the side effect.

    Safe travel. Peace on.