The climb to the Eastern Continental Divide, up 2,392 feet, is one of the hardest along the Great Allegheny Passage, which runs from Pittsburgh to Cumberland. The path begins to slope upwards, and bicyclists must pedal uphill until they reach a small tunnel.
When bicyclist reach the divide, they are rewarded for their effort. “You come out on the other side of the tunnel and it’s just this amazing vista,” Chevy Chase resident Judith Gold said.
In October, when Gold rode the trail, the view from the summit was a patchwork of reds, oranges and yellows from the changing leaves.
Gold is one of seven local friends — all older than 60 — who decided to bike the C&O Canal and the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) to fill their free time during the pandemic.
The trails connect and run for 334 miles, from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. Gold estimated the group biked farther with detours to stop for meals. The trip took seven days.
The rest of Gold’s group was Edith Boehler and Hugh Bredenkamp from Bethesda; Susan Creane from Chevy Chase, D.C.; Laura and Mauro Mecagni from McLean, Va.; and Gold’s husband, Gonzalo Pastor from Chevy Chase, Md. There were three married couples on the trip.
The group began riding on Oct. 13, starting in Point State Park in Pittsburgh. Along the way, they wound through West Virginia before ending in Georgetown on Oct. 19.
They stopped each night at bed and breakfasts in Connellsville and Rockwood in Pennsylvania; Cumberland, Little Orleans and Williamsport in Maryland; and Harpers Ferry in West Virginia.
“The ride was much more enjoyable than I thought,” Bredenkamp said. “I worried that spending hours on end along a trail would be boring.”
They considered bringing headphones and books on tape for the trip. “In the end, none of us even considered doing that once we got going,” Bredenkamp said, noting how much the group enjoyed peace, quiet, the scenery and spectacular wildlife.
Gold had the idea for the trip and convinced the others to join. In July, she was a few months away from retirement, and at a loss for how she would fill her newfound free time.
A trip like that had always been in the back of her mind, she said — biking runs in her family. Her brother runs a bike expedition company in Toronto.
The local group of friends has been biking together once or twice a month, for 15 to 20 miles.
However, Gold said, she knew the couples would not camp out. Midway through the summer, she sent the group a tentative plan for the bike trip, including the bed and breakfasts they could stay in along the way.
But it took some convincing.
All but two of the group members were concerned about their endurance. One was recovering from quadruple bypass heart surgery, and needed a machine for sleep apnea. Another needed a heart valve replacement.
“Most of us discounted it as too much, too far,” Boehler said. “We never said no, but it was very difficult for her to get everyone to say yes.”
Pastor was initially reluctant to sign on for the ride. He decided about 10 years ago never to bike again. Biking was difficult and uncomfortable, he said.
But because Gold was so enthusiastic about the trip, he began biking short distances and realized it wasn’t so bad.
“It’s not that the task is impossible,” Pastor said. “It’s the way you prepare to handle the task, the gear and attitude.”
He refurbished his daughter’s old bike with a more comfortable seat and new handlebars, and maintained an enthusiastic attitude.
By the middle of August, everyone had warmed up to the idea. The three women planned for the group to spend a week in Chincoteague in September. There, they biked every day to test what they could do.
“We all survived that,” Gold said with a laugh. They knew they were ready.
They carried their things in panniers — bags that hung from their bikes — and stopped each night to rest, shower and stay in a bed and breakfast. Due to some riders’ underlying health conditions, they were particularly sensitive to the risk of COVID-19.
But because of the pandemic, the bed and breakfasts were mostly empty, and the group often had the run of the place, Gold said. The trail is generally a popular tourist attraction, and people come from as far as California to see the foliage, their B&B hosts told them.
The first few days of the trip on the GAP, the trail was smooth and the group biked beneath an archway of falling leaves. “That was absolutely gorgeous,” Boehler said.
Each morning, the group began biking between 8:30 and 10 a.m. They had two 60-plus-mile days, but most were between 45 and 50, Gold said. Each person went at their own pace and met up at a predetermined lunch spot.
Bredenkamp was the fastest. He would shoot ahead and race against his Strava, a cycling app.
“It’s hard to explain the sort of urge when you get on a bike,” Bredenkamp said. “At least for me, and I think for many others who ride regularly, we have a certain rhythm and our bodies go at our natural pace.”
“I was in the middle of the pack, but I always ended up being the last because I was stopping to read the trail signs,” Gold said.
Riding down the C&O Canal, she could see the relics of old types of technology that had been overtaken. The canal was soon passed over for the railway, then the railway was overtaken by the highway. Unused train tracks run alongside the bike trail.
The towns beside the path are small, and were more prosperous and bustling when more people used to pass by.
The group stopped for lunch and sat outside at restaurants in the towns. Each traveler made the itinerary for one day.
The most interesting lunch spot, Gold said, was a small restaurant inside an old high school lunchroom. There was just one woman doing the cooking, cleaning and working the cash register.
Another particularly memorable site was the Big Savage Tunnel. Before riding through the almost 3,294-foot-long dark tunnel, the group banded together and put their headlights on in case something was lurking in the darkness.
Luckily, there was nothing, and after they passed through the tunnel, they were greeted by a beautiful view from Savage Mountain.
After a quick pause for photos, they continued on and eventually finished the trip in Georgetown.
Since returning from the adventure, the group decided to donate $1,001 to the C&O Canal Trust’s Towpath Forever Initiative. The trust maintains the towpath.
Now, Pastor plans to bike more frequently, particularly during the pandemic, when other types of exercise aren’t an option. The trip was easier than he expected, Pastor said.
Along the way, four group members had mild falls and Gold got a flat tire, but there were no major setbacks.
“I don’t think anybody should be daunted by the prospect of doing a ride like this,” Bredenkamp said. “Even with limited experience, I think they will be surprised at how enjoyable and rewarding it is.”