I like to ride my bicycle. I’m not a fitness nazi by any stretch of the imagination, but I enjoy getting on my bike and riding for miles at a time. I suppose it started when I was a kid in New York City, and would ride by bike (single speed complete with the sissy-bars and the banana seat) around the block over and over, dozens of times at a shot, because my mother didn’t like us riding in the streets of Queens. As a teen I would ride a salvaged 10-speed bike (which was a lot back then), gradually expanding my range. I brought a bike to college, and during the summers I rode 9+ miles each way to get to my job. After graduating I rode to my job when I lived nearby, or during lunch just for exercise when I didn’t. A dozen years ago I started riding in the Tour de Cure bike-a-thon, raising money for diabetes research 25-100 miles at a time. Riding just seems to always have been part of my life.
A bunch of years ago, I started to dream of really long bike rides. Could ride from home to my fraternity house (150 miles); to my parents’ house (240 miles); to Ohio (700 miles)? What would be involved in shipping a bike to the Pacific Ocean (San Francisco, Seattle, etc.) and riding back? How long would it take? I’ve looked into various websites describing cross country bike tours, mused about going it alone, and even started mapping out potential routes. In the past year or two my now teenage daughter Michelle would muse with me, and we’d imagine where we’d go and what we’d see, just for the fun of it. This past winter I started seriously thinking about biking to New York City, aided by the fact that Google Maps recently added the ability to map a bike route. Entering my address and my parents’ address in Queens instantly produced a tour plan … that turned out to be completely useless. You see, Google Maps is now linked with the Rails to Trails Conservancy, who develops and charts bike paths that used to be abandoned train tracks. And, unfortunately, there’s no standard on the quality of the routes: Some are nicely paved and marked, while others barely have the tracks removed! Google Maps for Bikes, which knows to favor bike paths, doesn’t know the difference, and the first route it provided took me to the intersection of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, and then directed me down a rail trail to Hartford that is little more than a path through the woods. (Yeah, that’s worth going out of my way for!)
Anyway, I figured out how to tailor the route to my own liking, and eventually found a route that started at my house, cut through Mass just west of Worcester, went through Conn to Hartford, took a (paved) rail trail to New Haven, and followed the coast of Long Island Sound to The Bronx. From there I figured I could jump the Triboro Bridge to Queens, and in around 250 miles get to my parents’ house. I figured I could ride about 150 miles the first day, get a hotel near Hartford, and complete the last 100 miles on the second day. Michelle and I even started planning on making this trek over Spring Break, biking Saturday and Sunday, resting a few days, and returning before the next weekend.
Fortunately, the weather didn’t play nice for us, as it rained both weekends of Spring Break. I say “fortunately” because we really weren’t prepared physically for such a ride, not covering many miles before the end of April. But schedules opened up for us at the start of August, and we decided to give it a shot. We even got an 80 mile practice ride in a few days before hand, to prove to ourselves that we could do it. At my parents’ request, we changed the route a bit, heading for the Bridgeport – Port Jefferson ferry instead of going through The Bronx; this cut the distance to 240 miles or so, making it even more feasible.
With bikes loaded with energy bars, twelve pages of maps, and the complete turn-by-turn Google directions, we headed out bright and early (7am) on Wednesday morning, and for the first half of the day things went great. Heading south through Hollis, we jumped on the Nashua River Rail Trail, a dozen miles of paved path that we know well. Skirting around the former Fort Devens Army Base, we hit our first snag: signs that read “Bridge Closed – Detour”. Opting to ignore the barricades, we found a bridge under repair but otherwise passable, so we stuck to the plan. A few miles later, at the end of a long downhill section, we found another set of signs for another bridge closed. Again we went around the barricades, and while this bridge had people working on the bridge, they didn’t mind as we road on the sidewalk. A dozen miles further on, just past the Wachusett Reservoir, we were directed onto River Road. This seemed at first to be a nice, quiet and level road; a quarter mile later we came upon signs saying “Road Closed Ahead”, followed by more barricades. Asking a cyclist coming the other way, we found that the road was closed because it was significantly deteriorating, but was otherwise passable. We also found that it had some significant hills in its two miles; this would be an omen of what was to come. Returning to “real” roads, we found ourselves in an area of Central Mass that consists of very tall, very long hills. And while rolling hills can be pleasant (using the downhill portion to gain speed to carry you over the following uphill portion), these hills were just obnoxious. You couldn’t go fast enough downhill, due to traffic lights, road conditions, or just wind drag, and the uphill climbs were brutal. (We joked that one hill was best climbed with a ladder.) After several hours and far too many miles of these hills, we turned onto Route 9; while a much busier road, it was also smoother and less hilly, so we could try to make up some lost time.
Unfortunately, after leaving Rt. 9, a missed instruction put us miles off course. When we passed under the Mass Pike (very near to Six Flags), we found we were not where we thought we were, and had difficulty with our limited maps determining where we wanted to be. A passing cyclist helped us out with directions (and even refilled our water supplies!) but we realized that we were not going to make it to Hartford by evening. Crossing into Connecticut, we found a place to eat in the town of Stafford, as well as the only place to stay (Angelina’s Inn Keeper’s Place Bed & Breakfast) within 20 miles.
The next morning we were met with the first rain storm seen in the area in weeks. While this put us about 2½ hours behind schedule, we used the delay to ask the inn keepers about road conditions in the area. They advised strongly to NOT take the roads we were planning, as they had steep hills and numerous switchbacks. Instead they directed us to other roads that began with gentle hills and ended with long stretches of smooth, flat travel; in short, some of these roads qualified as the find of the trip. Heading out at 9:30, we were in Hartford by noon, and a few hours (and a brief rain storm) later we arrived at the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail. This well-maintained, paved trail carries you nearly 30 miles from south-east of Hartford to New Haven … except for a 7 mile stretch in the middle! (Aw, come on guys, you couldn’t connect the pieces?) Arriving in New Haven for dinner, we found a hotel in Milford, and called it a day.
On the last morning of ride, we covered the dozen miles and just missed the 10:30 ferry, so by 1pm we were on Long Island. A slow leak in my front tire and a persistent head wind greeted us, but we pushed through the last 45 miles, arriving at my parents’ home in time for dinner. We stayed there for a couple of days, and then my wife drove down with the van and “rescued” us. (Had we not several other appointments in the following week, we would have ridden back as well.) In any event, 243 miles, three days, and a whole bunch of memories!