When I discussed the idea of blogging about my little adventure on the BGI blog, one of my suggestions was that I could use the trip as a short, intensive field test on some of the gear, and to offer some tips and suggestions for riders who might be considering such a ride. So, here goes….
The good news is, nothing broke. There was no single piece of gear that I was disappointed with, nor did anything fail, crack, bend, pop, fizzle, or die. The even better news is that there really isn’t any bad news about this trip from any perspective. All of my gear, both cycling and camping, performed up to and beyond expectations. I do have many thoughts on some items that worked particularly well, and some that might need further consideration before you take them on your own touring adventure. Here are some of the surprises….
First and foremost, the bike. I rode a 2008 Trek 7.3 FX hybrid. As I believe I mentioned, I was a bit hesitant to take a $550 bike path bike on a 350 mile offroad (albeit lightly so) loaded tour. I own a perfectly good Trek 520 Loaded Touring rig that is designed for the load, but it really isn’t designed for the dirt, so I left it at home. My chief concerns with the 7.3 were the wheels and front lowrider rack mount. I carried six extra spokes and nipples, just in case, as well as all the tools to replace both drive-side and non spokes. I figured that if they didn’t immediately taco under the stress in Pittsburgh I would be okay, and I was right. I held my breath when I put everything on the bike, waited for the wheels to self-destruct, but they never did. I still don’t need to true them! I will mention that we’ve had a couple issues at the shop with Bontrager wheels, but that Trek has always stood behind them and fulfilled their end of the bargain on the 5 year warranty that those wheels come with, but knowing that they passed this test is a HUGE testament to their durability.
One reason I purchased the 7.3 in the first place was because it has holes drilled in the fork for a front rack, and I already had this trip in the back of my mind. I used my old old old Blackburn front Lorider rack and, for the most part, it held up pretty well. I had to use some spacers to mount it, and nothing ever failed, but as far as actually being a good setup for this particular trip, I don’t recommend it. My old (also circa 1998) Trek panniers are sagging a bit, and there were many sections that I wasn’t sure they were going to allow me enough clearance. Even in some of the corners I had to be careful as the bottoms scraped before I reached the apex of the turn. In some of the more overgrown or rocky sections I had to not only steer my wheels through the obstacles, but also account for the only 3-4" of ground clearance that the bags provided. Carrying the front load higher is highly recommended.
Only two other issues with the bike. First, the gearing. Again for a flat ride, it was fine, but when I attempted the 2 mile 10% grade off the trail towards Fallingwater the gearing was too high. Okay okay, my legs were not up to snuff and I was carring a huge load, but a lower granny would be essential for a tour with even moderately rolling hills. Second, fenders are a must on these trails. Even with a week of dry weather, my bike looks like I’ve been rolling it around in loose dirt for a month. My bags are completely dusty and my legs were always a mess at the end of the day. That was WITH fenders!
But, anyway, the 7.3 proved sturdy, reliable, comfortable, and reasonably nimble. It does not carry the front load as well as a 520, for example, and where I could easily descend a mountain at 35+ on a loaded 520, I scrubbed speed at 30 mph on the 7.3 because the front started to feel sketchy. I also use the 7.3 extensively for commuting and to pull my six year old on her Tagalong, and it handles those tasks with great ease.
A major surprise to me was a pretty small one, but it was my G30 lenses on my Oakley Half Jackets. The route routinely goes in and out of the shade, and there are rocks and ruts that like to hide behind the shadows. Normally I reserve these lenses for overcast days, but they were the perfect choice for rapidly changing conditions. As I neared the end and was out of shade, I switched to the darkest Black Iridium lenses.
My Continental Tour Ride 700x32c tires were very very good. I never had a flat tire, and it protected the rim and spokes from dangers along the trail. That said, I was blessed with dry weather for the entire journey. Had it rained, I would have been completely miserable in many ways, the chief one being the performance of my relatively narrow tires on the C & O Towpath. Even though it had been over a week since rain fell, there were numerous spots on the trail that were still wet that I was able to steer around. If I had to ride through them, they grabbed my tires and sucked them down quickly. Eddie, of Alison and Eddie from Ann Arbor that I met on day 1, was riding a Haro 29er and pulling a BOB trailer, which would be the ideal setup for a messy day on the trail. So, good tires, in good conditions, but this trail begs for something wider in bad conditions.
The only other major piece of equipment that should be mentioned is my Garmin 705 computer. If you are unfamiliar with it, it’s a hi-zoot gps, hrm, bike computer, routing tool, etc. I will provide a full review of this product in a future blog post, but wanted to put a little blurb in here. In short, it worked very well. The biggest fault of this device for a trip like this is it’s sole power source, which is a built-in rechargable battery that is only rechargable with an AC charger with mini USB output. By the third day I was literally searching for outlets at every single stop so I could put a little juice in it. As it turned out, I only fell really behind it once, and lost the final 4 miles heading into Hancock on day four. It generates some AMAZING data that you can upload to your PC, and the routing features are fantastic. I even used it to help me find Fallingwater. I searched for the attraction, told it to navigate me to it, and said GO.
Other pieces of equipment that performed well were my new Axiom rear panniers and my small Detours handlebar bag. For camping equipment I rely on my MSR Whisperlite Internationale stove, which I’ve used for about 12 years, an MSR water filter, The Northface Bullfrog tent (also more than 10 years old) and a TNF Cat’s Meow sleeping bag. It all performed flawlessly.
My next blog entry will be about the stats…routes, mileage, etc. Stay tuned so you can see what the Garmin can do! Until then, keep the rubber side down.