Smile Politely

Chambana to Connecticut in 16 days

I’ve been itching to do a long distance bike tour since 2007 when I first moved to Urbana from Connecticut. My move to Urbana in was actually supposed to be by bicycle but I was thwarted by an extremely untimely knee injury sustained just two weeks before I was planning to hop on my bike. After a year of physical therapy and three years in Chambana it was time to try again in reverse. My move back to Connecticut would be done via bicycle and I avoided soccer like the plague so there wouldn’t be a crippling injury repeat. 

After shipping my belongings via ABF’s ReloCube(r), I commenced loosely planning an unsupported tour. The planning was on the informal side as I really didn’t pick out an exact route or print cue sheets. The planning consisted of picking a sequence of cities I was going to pass through and getting a rough idea that the route was passable using Google’s beta bicycle setting.  The route planning was heavily influenced by whether friends lived at convenient way points.  The route also purposefully bypassed the mountains in Pennsylvania by scooting up into New York and following the Erie Canal, as water doesn’t flow up hill.

I had some vacation saved up and figured I could stand to part with up to 2 1/2 weeks, still leaving something for the holidays. My plan was to leave on September 18th and arrive in East Hartford, Connecticut no later than October 6th. That gave me 19 days to ride roughly 1,200 miles. At 60 miles a day this seemed reasonable and might give me a day or so to stop and recuperate if necessary. Prior to the ride I had been ramping up my riding somewhat, but not nearly enough to consider myself even marginally prepared for a serious solo tour. 

If you’re only slightly interested, here are the quick stats right up front.  The ride went better than planned and I was finished by October 3rd including one day off in Rochester, NY. That averages out to 80 miles per day. Most days were tail or cross winds, but two days were pretty miserable weather as Tropical Storm Nicole swept through New York and battered me with headwinds as well as constant rain. I had two broken spokes and one broken rack mount, but none requiring me to delay things severely. I camped five nights, spent one night in a hotel, and the rest of the nights were passed inside various homes. Riding with packed panniers day after day was slower than I expected and I spent a lot of each day riding. All in all it was a great time, a memorable life experience, and something I’m excited to do again. I want to take this opportunity to heartily toast Bag Balm and a surprising absence of saddle abrasions.

Now those that are interested in the ride details and funny stories I picked up along the way can keep reading the daily summaries below. This will be split into a two part article with the second half of the day by day summaries and my “lessons learned” in the second part.

My Gear: I rode a Specialized Roubaix road bike that had a rear rack attached in a non-standard fashion. The saddle was a favorite I had picked out 3 years earlier for the original tour attempt and was well accustomed to my posterior. The bike has a triple chainring up front with a pretty generous granny gear. I packed light with a hammock, light sleeping bag, change of riding clothes, some cold weather layers, and a small bathroom kit, along with basic tools, spare tube, spare spokes, and a cable lock. I took an Economist and a David Sedaris book to pass the time. Two waterproof panniers and a small rack trunk carried my load. The back end of the bike was disproportionately heavy. I was rightfully worried about spokes and the rear rack breaking. 

Saturday, Sept 18th – Don’t drink wine 25 miles into a 120 mile ride.
I told a couple of folks that I was planning to ride out at noon and was surprised by the large group of people eager to get me on my way. I think around twelve folks rode me out of town and five came with 25 miles out to Sleepy Creek Vineyard. Geoff Merritt bought a bottle of wine and I drank more than my fair share. We chatted and hung out and then they sent me on to Indianapolis. I had planned to do the whole 120 miles in one shot, since its not that interesting of a ride and I’d done it several times before. After realizing I’d like to take a nap at mile forty, I stopped at a gas station and got a large caffeinated soda. Using my sugared soda power I plowed through and arrived at my sister’s house around 10 p.m., somewhat loopy. When I say the ride wasn’t interesting that is except for Camp Drake Road, which kicks ass. Unfortunately Camp Drake Road is 25 miles from Urbana, although the surrounding area south of Kickapoo is very nice riding for those looking for a long loop.

Sunday, Sept 19th — Oops. Connecticut is East of Indianapolis, not West.
A nice lunch with my sister in downtown Indy and then a 1 p.m. start heading Southeast. I planned to get halfway to Miamisburg, O., and camp at a state park. When leaving Indy, I accidentally turned west instead of east and headed the wrong direction for five miles. I’ll bet this doesn’t surprise my riding companions at all (Ed. note: nope). Take the sun away and I’m useless for cardinal directions. What’s an extra ten miles though in the scheme of things? Peanuts. Due to the late start I finished the day in the dark and pulled into a fortuitously located Quakertown State Recreation area on Brookville Lake that happened to be vacant of both other campers and park staff. I scored free camping and a hot shower.  

Monday, Sept 20th — I forgot how pretty / hilly SE Indiana and SW Ohio are.

Beautiful rural riding with a healthy helping of hills.  Lots of livestock and small farms.  Not really following a map but just keeping an Eastern bearing on lightly traveled roads. I decided to detour through my old hometown of Middletown, O., and then followed the Miami River Valley bike trail almost all the way from Middletown to Miamisburg. Seeing my brother, his wife, and my new niece was the highlight of the day. There’s no place like home.

Tuesday, Sept 21st — Bike paths and corn.  

Tuesday started off interesting. There is a bike path on the Miami River that goes straight up into Dayton, jogs down to Xenia, and then continues on almost all the way to Columbus following an old rail line. The bike trail allowed me to ignore almost all the route decisions that I would need to make on a usual day and kept me out of traffic. The riverside multi-use paths around Dayton were relaxing and scenic at the same time. Two shy coyotes along the path surprised me just as I was leaving Miamisburg.

The long stretch between Xenia and Columbus made me feel like I was on an extra long bike path in Central Illinois, like this one proposed between Urbana and Kickapoo State Park. Super boring, but at least I didn’t have to think much about my route. After a harrowing six-mile dash down Broad Street into downtown Columbus, I remembered my friend had specifically recommended against that route into the city. A shower, tasty dinner with friends, some beers, and a downtown stroll help wash away the bad vibes I’d accumulated for Columbus during past visits while my sister attended Ohio State.

Wednesday, Sept 22nd — A broken spoke, sustainable farming, and a Pulitzer?
My friend Ariel is an Urban Planner in Columbus, particularly focused on bike / ped issues. His Wednesday morning was already booked with the Columbus bike / ped count as he was scheduled to be counting passersby on a local multi-use path. The route North out of Columbus took me right past his counting station and is where I got my one photo from the trip. There were a surprising number of bike commuters heading into downtown on the path, which made me think lots of good things about urban multi-use paths that connect homes to work. 

My target for the evening was Malabar Farm State Park about halfway to Cleveland.  I arrived at the farm just before 4 p.m. and took an opportunity to tour the large main estate with a park staffer. Totally worth it. I would have never known that Louis Bromfield was a Pulitzer prize winning author and sustainable farming advocate. The Malabar Farm restaurant was also delicious and had a spring right next door to fill up my water bottle. Halfway to Malabar I broke a spoke on my rear wheel, drive side. This would be my first order of business to get fixed on Thursday.

Thursday, Sept 23nd — Mansfield, OH has friendly people!
My broken spoke on the rear wheel required a trip to Mansfield (slightly out of the way) for the closest bike shop. A classic rust belt city with lots of vacant industrial buildings, I wasn’t at first impressed. After having a talkative couple buy my breakfast at a downtown diner and the local bike shop owner replace a spoke for only $7, I am now a #1 fan of Mansfield. The bike shop owner ended up filling me in on a Mansfield business that expertly refurbishes classic bicycles. I kept that business card for future reference.

Swizzling my way Northeast towards Cleveland, I was unsure where I would be spending the evening.  Around 5 p.m. I zoomed downhill into the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and wandered around looking for a sign pointing to camping, but no dice. A couple of helpful volunteers and an extremely friendly local pointed me towards the trailhead store where I could reserve my spot at the largely unknown (and unsigned) campsites located behind the now closed youth hostel. I set up camp and headed the nearby town of Peninsula for a hearty dinner at the Winking Lizard. Just as I arrived at the restaurant I got a call from the staffer from the trail store, I had left my wallet (a ziplock bag) at the register while making my reservation. The staffer kindly dropped it at the restaurant on her way home from work, averting what would have been a possible disaster.  

Friday, Sept 24rd — Hills.  Big hills in Northeast Ohio.  When do I get to the lake?
Just south of Cleveland, I headed up and out of the Cuyahoga Valley that happens to have a very nice stone dust trail along the remnants of the Ohio and Erie Canal. I didn’t have a route planned other than to approximately follow the southern edge of Lake Erie in the direction of Erie, Pa. I was astonished by the abundance of vineyards and wineries that I would continue to pass for the next two days as well. After zigging and zagging in a roughly northeast direction though surprisingly hilly country, I finally made it to the lake around Ashtabula just in time to scope out somewhere to camp for the night. After dinner in Ashtabula I stealth camped in a city lakefront park a mile or so east of the city. This evening was the end of the unseasonably warm weather in the 90’s that had cooked me in Ohio. It was a comfortable 70 def. F as I settled in to sleep, but I awork shivering at 50 deg. F.  A hammock is a poor choice for cold weather camping.

At this point, I’ve cycled roughly 600 miles in seven days and reached the northeast corner of Ohio.  Ohio is huge when traversed diagonally.  The warm weather has turned cool and crisp, and I’ll be heading into the remnants of a tropical storm next week in New York.  I’m halfway there and so far so good from a physical and mechanical point of view.  My biggest complaint at this point was a sore sitter, but I was expecting that.  The most interesting riding is yet to come as I ride places I’ve never visited and stay with people I’ve never met.  Keep an eye out for Part 2 of this article, and you’ll get to follow my progress across New York along the historic Erie Canal and over the Berkshires in Massachusetts.  

Part Two will run next Wednesday.

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