Tuesday, May 23, 2023

2023 Erie Canal Bike Tour

The start of the Erie Canal Trail in Tonawanda.

The basics

As with any bike tour, there's more than one way of doing things, so overall impressions are worth noting to help future travelers on the same route. The actual Erie Canal mileage, from Tonawanda to Albany, is 350 miles. Tack on 10-12 miles if starting in Buffalo, riding the Shoreline Trail to the start. The prevailing wind is from the west - our journey was west to east - though we encountered headwinds 3 of 7 days. We had allotted more days to finish, but averaged 50 mile days to avoid a forecasted, unchanging, rainy day. We were lucky to have not encountered any rain at all. Leaving a car in Albany, we took our bikes and gear on Amtrak to Buffalo, stayed a night in a hotel, and set off the following day. In general, it was a positive experience and highly recommended, especially if you enjoy history.

Why did we choose the Erie Canal?

The trail has been complete and popular for many years. Living within 3 hours by car from Albany, the route is not far from our home. Vacations usually took my husband and I further field, by plane, or to the C&O Canal region. It took the pandemic to open our eyes to nearby trails and/or regions easily accessed by Amtrak. Impressed with other segments of the recently completed Empire State Trail system, the Erie Canal route was the next logical goal. We chose May to avoid the crowds and potential difficulty securing accommodation.

Learning History

I am most intrigued if cycling and history intersect. As we learned from excellent historical signs, central New York was once the breadbasket, so thus the impetus to move crops efficiently to the Atlantic coast. The canal was started in central New York in the 1820s, and construction went both directions eventually connecting Lake Eric to the Hudson River waterway. In some regions the canal was enlarged three times and/or sections were abandoned and wider canal sections rebuilt as traffic increased. The canal trail follows all three portions, depending upon the region. From the bike seat, we were often privy to new canal, old canal, railroad (our trail often was on a former rail line) to nearby highway with trucks hauling goods, spanning 230 years of moving goods to market.

Flora and fauna

Spring was in full force with blooming trees (apple and cherry), pink and white honeysuckle bushes, wildflowers (trillium, buttercups), and fragrant lilacs from adjoining properties. Flower petals swirled in the ever-present breeze.

In the central portion it was evident that farming is still king, Corn, grain, and abundant apple orchards (in white full bloom) as far as the eye can see. Large double-tired tractors were constant companions in the fields.

We encountered a few snakes on the trail: a black and white variety that we couldn't identify, and a dark mottled kind that I later identified as a watersnake. Canadian Geese and goslings were ever-present and we often had to ride single file to gently move them off the trail, the guard geese, mouth open honking, often flapping their wings. There were muskrat, beaver, great blue herons landing and taking off from the old canals pea soup-like waters, woodchucks scampering across the trail, a few deer, blue jays and one Baltimore oriole.

Route navigation

There was impressive signage and navigation through cities, most notably in Syracuse where there was phenomenal in terms of moving bicycles through congested areas.. Overall there is no shortage of Empire State Trail and Erie Canal signage, or on Buffalo's Shoreline Trail. It's hard to get lost.

Accommodation options

We opted to camp as much as possible, but found that campsites weren't abundant within two miles of the trail, and our personal barometer to average 50 daily trail miles didn't align well with private campsites and/or lock camping. One would need to stagger between 20 and 70 miles between camping sites. Beside staying in Buffalo, we stayed in hotels two more nights, one because of cold, the other because of lack of accessible camping.

Trail towns and signage

Communities embrace the canal trail with parks and parking access at most road junctions. The amount of parks was astounding though 90% didn't provide trash cans, portolets, or water. We had to get creative with acquiring enough water: take advantage of store bathrooms, in one instance walking into a diner, where a waitress kindly filled my bottles.

With abundant park access, information in trail towns was lacking. Intersections with small town main streets left us guessing: did they have a store, bank, public bathroom, bakery, ice cream place, eateries? We wondered why towns didn't capitalize on tourism dollars with simple direction signs.

The recycling dilemma

As with most travel, recycling is difficult. Coming from a state that recycles everything, even required composting, we know it's as easy as providing dual trash/recycling containers. We didn't find recycling receptacles in parks, town centers, campgrounds or hotels. It left us baffled.

Free camping the first night along the canal.

Trail surfaces

In general, we guess the overall trail surface is 60% stone dust, 30% paved. The remainder is a mix of double-track and rougher gravel. There is an ugly on-road 20 mile detour away from the canal on a semi-busy, hilly of course, road made bearable to us at least, by a wonderful tailwind and reasonable road shoulder.

I had a love/hate relationship with paved trail sections, especially around Rochester. When pavement is smooth it's wonderful, though when they become buckled, they are jolting, cracks often hidden through sun dappled surface, sending me cursing and standing on the pedals. I preferred the smooth, predictable stone dust portions that was the predominate surface.

Equipment review

My Bassi Rachel step through, overall, performed well. It's fairly lightweight, setup tubeless with V-brakes, which helped when I needed to remove the front wheel, and suspend the bike from it's rear wheel on Amtrak's closet-like vertical hook storage. I used two rear panniers in conjunction with a Jack-the Bike Rack on the handlebars, which housed my sleep system. At first I loaded the three components into a duffel on the top, hoping to contain all, but after the load shimmied on a 2 mile ride from the train station to our hotel in Buffalo, I moved two items beneath the rack to distribute some of the weight closer to the wheel. I repurposed the duffel bag for food, attached on the rear rack, which proved more versatile. The Jack Rack sits too high on Rachel's long head tube, so I'll be investigating other removable front end solutions for a future adventure. The tubeless tires were efficient and comfortable, requiring air in the rear wheel two or three times. The lack of tread though, caused me to slip on newer trail sections with looser gravel. Because of possible toe overlap with the front wheel, I experimented with Power Grips foot retention. I found them awkward and used them very little.

Because the mid-May weather ranged from 31-75F, it was difficult to pack the right amount of clothing, though I did pretty well. I discovered the low end of my Cosmic quilt - mid 40s - and supplemented with extra layers and wool socks. We stayed indoors on the coldest night. I wished I had brought overmitts in addition to my thin gloves. I used every clothing piece, except for the unneeded rain gear, and layered when needed. I brought 2 padded shorts, 1 padded knicker, 1 unpadded knicker, long unpadded tights for sleeping in and/or as a layering piece, cotton t-short for sleeping, 1 wicking bike top, and a lightweight longsleeve sunshirt, a baselayer, and a breathable, semi-windproof jacket, plus a thermal full zip layer (I wore these latter two a lot). I brought a couple other items, but the point is, we encountered a diverse range of weather that made the layering system a good idea.

Parting thoughts

I am happy to have completed the trail in 7 days without ever really preparing ahead of time. However, in hindsight, to appropriately enjoy the region and spend less time on a bike saddle, I would've preferred to slow down and ride around 40 miles each day. I had 4 more days of vacation so there was no hurry. I wished we had stayed at a couple locks and went to a museum.

The Amtrak route continued on from Buffalo and ended at Niagara Falls. Had we realized, we would've started from a more scenic location as it was the same distance to the start of the Erie Canal.

I'm interested in reading further about canal history. Any historical fiction suggestions?

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Bassi Rachel - Dialing in the Fit

Bassi Rachel, complete with racks, fenders, two bottle cages, and foot retention straps.

I have finally set up the Bassi Rachel to my liking! For touring, there are racks and fenders, and a handlebar cushioned for a change of hand positions. Most importantly, the cockpit is comfortable, finetuned for optimal body position.

In record time, compared with the former Clem-entine.

Our son also clipped the support brackets on the fenders so there's less hardware to catch on my shoes.
I installed the front fender one evening, but couldn't fathom how to install the rear one with included clamp-type bracket, so I set the project aside. Fortunately our bike mechanic son offered to finish. His method involved drilling a hole in the metal fender, bolting directly to the frame hole (see below). It's cleaner-looking for sure - thanks to him!

It's often preferable to build the bike from the frame up: you get to choose components. I have light, tubeless wheels, I asked for a setback seat post. I chose easier, click-type shifting, and V-brakes for simple adjustment, 2x gearing, and a curvy handlebar for alternate hand positions.

What I hadn't anticipated, was toe overlap. I added the ugly, but customizable Power Grip straps, rather than using old school clips and straps. I'm hoping they'll prevent my shoes from whacking the front fender, potentially tearing my shoes and/or the rubber endcaps off the fender stays. I haven't used any foot retention for 5 or so years so we'll see...

As for the handlebar set up, I've used a similar approach on the Clem-entine, so I expect this will work out well.  

For fit, I realized the Bassi Rachel is designed to sit upright, more so than my previous step through bicycle - or the way I ended up using it. Once I embraced the new fit, I lowered the seat and tilted the nose upward, and raised the handlebars slightly, and all is well.

Of course, nothing like beginning a weeklong bike tour - leaving Friday - to encounter other quirks! 

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

The Versatility of Folding Bikes on Amtrak - Dahon Boardwalk in Albany, NY

The Mohawk Hudson Bike Hike Trail, north of Albany, hugs the Hudson River.
 It's also the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal Trail. 

I'm a fan of the Empire State Trail system, so I waited for a good weather weekend to ride Amtrak to investigate the Albany, New York region with my Dahon Boardwalk. As I've learned, the Boardwalk rides best with limited baggage - perfect for indoor accommodation. With a new-to-me voluminous front bag, I was able to stow all my overnight gear, important for two reasons: easy carry-on while also lugging the folded bike on Amtrak (avoiding extra fee and a reservation), and because of pedaling both days, leaving late afternoon Sunday, returning by train, I had to tote all my gear on rides. It was a valuable exercise in packing essentials.

Pedaling five miles from home to the station, I easily folded the bike into a homemade tote, storing the bike behind my seat and settled in for a 5 hour journey.

In Albany, I lugged the folded bicycle to the train platform and assembled everything, then took the elevator one flight down to exit the station. Following verbal Google directions, I easily navigated over the Hudson River by way of a segregated bike lane.  

The goal for the late afternoon was investigating the nine mile Helderberg-Hudson Rail Trail, ending southwest in Voorheesville. It was a surprising elevation gain the entire way, but doable in lower gears. I enjoyed the bird life, roaring cascades, access to community parks, and near the end, a lovely display of public art. What a fast descent back to Albany!

View east towards the Hudson River from my hotel. A nearly full moon eventually
 rose between the buildings.
Settled into the Hilton after a 30 mile day, I enjoyed a burger and tasty Lake George IPA in the oddly empty hotel bar. The hotel was full with participants attending Pentecostal Church Easter events. The only hiccup was the next morning, waiting on the 14th floor for 30 minutes with a luggage cart before abandoning it it to squeeze into a nearly full elevator, my bike pressed up against someone's stroller.

I set off north of Albany on the Mohawk Hudson Bike Hike Trail. The park-like setting squeezed between a nearby noisy highway (87?) and the Hudson River, but was pleasant on a brisk morning, them ambled on road through Watervliet, and a portion of Green Island before entering trails again to Peebles Island.

The bridge and pedestrian walkway from Peebles Island to historically significant Waterford was over 100 years old. The pipe (at left) carries power to the island.

I really enjoyed Waterford, especially as it's the confluence of two defunct canal sections: a branch of the Erie and the Champlain Canal, and the intersection of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers. Specifically though, I aimed for the gravel Champlain Canal Trail to continue north. 

The 4-5 mile trail followed the remnants of the old canal. A portion had turned into wetlands or was dry. A couple spots lined with canal stones looked like it hadn't changed much from its glory days, ferrying wood and goods southward to the Hudson River. 

Wild iris (?) and skunk cabbage.
Early spring growth oozed from the wetland.

A heron perched on a log caught my eye, plus an ugly snapping turtle...and numerous small black turtles sunning themselves on logs slipped into the pond as I pedaled by.

By far, the oddest experience on the canal trail was climbing over a landfill. I laughed out loud at the absurdity. But I also rather liked the idea of reclaiming land for other uses. With controlled monitoring, and signs indicating remaining on the gravel path, why not let users travel through?

I had been carrying the purple purse/bag slung over my body, but as the day warmed I found a better solution, looping the strap around the large bag. This allowed easy access to my phone for taking pictures.

On the return trip, I grabbed a sandwich and ate lunch at a lovely spot overlooking the Hudson River. Timing worked out perfectly to catch the train home, and riding in the dark, I arrived home around 10:30 pm.

Parting Thoughts
I find mini journeys satisfying and worthwhile. I was pleased that packing light actually worked very well. I somehow forgot my toothbrush, but could've also left one pair of tights at home, saving more space. My legs periodically brushed the bag cinched to the seat post, but wasn't that bothersome or I would've moved it. As backup, I carried a cargo net that could secure the bag or anything else on the rear rack. 

Weight in the front bag was about 10-15 lbs., half of that tools. In addition to the typical flat repair stuff, rubber gloves, and rag, I carried a new wrench that adjusts seat, removes axle nuts, and tightens pedals - an all-in-one tool that's a must for the folding bike.

As for the Amtrak legs, staff were extremely helpful, accommodating the heavy tote bag (my bicycle weighs 30 lbs.) I'm pleased to pedal from home, board a train, and travel several hours to ride in a new region. I'm encouraged to go on more Amtrak adventures!

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Why Jack the Bike Rack?

Attached close to the stem, JACK The Bike Rack frees up space on the handlebars.

I chose JACK The Bike Rack for it's easy removal and functional adaptability to fit all kinds of handlebars and bikes. Plus, the platform has multiple attachment points so conceivably you can lash just about anything there - within reason, of course. My new touring bicycle can handle bolt on style front racks, but I envision a lighter weight touring style on this Beaujolais beauty, and wanted to experiment with something different.

The rack was shipped directly from the manufacturer and was cleverly packaged, complete with spacers to fit different handlebar widths, straps, bungee cord and special carabiners - indeed much more than needed - and I'll hold onto the accessories box, should I decide to try the rack on another bike.

It took 30 minutes to sort out appropriate connections and tension, but understanding JACK's angle placement was half the battle.

I'm looking forward to trying out JACK on a weeklong tour in May. I plan to strap my sleep system up front, most likely adding a cargo net for extra security. 

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Lightweight DIY Tote Bag for the Dahon Boardwalk

Double ripstop nylon construction, strong enough for the 30+ lb. Dahon Boardwalk.

The more I ride the Dahon Boardwalk, the more I want versatile traveling arrangements. Along with minimizing load carrying to one large front bag, one rear duffel, my goal was to create a foldable and stowable, but strong tote bag - something that's easy to lift on/off Amtrak, minimizing contact with a greasy bike, and avoiding the bicycle reservation and fee. 

With bag flat, I can easily pull up the sides.
I researched DIY tote bag construction for a one-piece design, figuring less seams was better; this pattern only had side seams. I altered the pattern by running the straps (1.5" webbing, easier on the hands) all the way under the bag for extra strength. 

For style and to define the exterior, I used purple thread and felt buttons from my stash.
I created several drawings, and measured multiple times before purchasing material and webbing. Black material was a given, but I initially wanted purple straps for contrast. However, supplies in general are expensive, so black made more sense. Using 40-50% off coupons, total cost was $40.

The bike sticks out a bit, but straps are placed correctly for carrying.
Even though I measured well, I misjudged the volume of vertical material, and had 18" extra, which also made the straps ungainly to lift. Rather than cut the bottom and compromise the ripstop's strength, I decided to tuck and fold the middle, ultimately creating 4 layers. It worked out well! At the outset, I was more concerned with ease of pulling up the sides around the bike, so erred on plenty of material.

With bike inside, the bag collapses of course, so the addition of hook and loop fixtures on the handles secures the bag upright.

I also placed 3" of hook and loop tape on each top end to visually make the bag smaller. There is plenty of space to put one of my two luggage bags also inside - possibly both - but the added weight might make it ungainly.

I had planned on sewing a simple wedge-shaped compartment for the tote bag, secured to the seatpost. Magically, I had saved a mesh exterior backpacking-type pocket, which was a perfect size - all that was required was adding hook and loop attachments to the existing buckles.

I'm excited to try out this arrangement! I have an adventure planned for an April weekend with accommodating weather.