By Adam Newman
It seemed like a terrible idea at the time.
The plan was to ride 350-some miles from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. for the National Bike Summit along rail trails that would likely be soft and slushy, while facing weather from sun to snow and probably everything in between. Oh, and we were going to do it in three days.
Naturally I signed up right away.
The idea was hatched last fall, but finally came to fruition this past weekend, as Bicycle Times Editor Karen Brooks and I tackled the Great Allegheny Passage Trail and the C&O Canal towpath in three long days. Thankfully the mild spring co-operated and blessed us with wonderful weather and allowed the volunteers along the trail to open the Big Savage Tunnel early, just in time for our passage.
While I couldn’t stay in Washington, Karen will be attending the Summit this week, then lobbying members of Congress before making the return ride along the same route with other members of the Bicycle TImes crew.
Here’s a quick recap from our trip:
Pittsburgh in the early morning light. We “officially” began our trip on the Hot Metal Bridge.
Sunrise just east of McKeesport, Pa.
This was our view for most of the day.
Arriving in Connellsville, Pa.
Where we were greeted with our very own St. Patrick’s Day parade!
Despite the lack of leaves on the trees, temperatures were in the 70s. We ate lunch in Ohiopyle where we chatted with a couple cruising around on their motorcycle for the day. “Do you wear those butt pads?” he asked. Yes. Yes, we do.
Almost to Confluence, Pa. Still relatively clean at this point…
The Pinkerton Tunnel is closed, so the trail winds its way around the mountain.
Our campsite at the Husky Haven campground in Rockwood. I can’t tell you how great this place is. They have a guest room with Wi-Fi, books, and games, plus showers, tons of free firewood and a great staff. Bring some earplugs though, the trains that roll by are LOUD.
Day two started with cloudy skies but warm temperatures. I didn’t mind being out of the sun.
By the time we made it to the Eastern Continental Divide, the trail was soft and our pace was slow. At least it was all downhill from here! Once over the top, the trail drops off much more steeply than on the western side. It started to rain, but we didn’t mind, we were still going nearly twice as fast as on the way up.
The 3,300-foot-long Big Savage Tunnel is closed in the winter, but thanks to a mild spring, we made some phone calls and learned it was to be opened just three days before our passage.
From there we plunged down the mountain, across the Maryland state line, and into Cumberland.
As we rolled into town, the rain dried up and we dried off, stuffing our faces at Cafe Mark & Jennifer’s Desserts. We were quite a site for the after-church crowd.
The GAP trail ends in Cumberland, and the C&O Canal towpath begins. A National Historic Park, the canal was once the most accessible means of transportation from Washington to to the West, but it could never compete with the speed and convenience of the railroads.
Some of the canal remains filled with water, while most of it is being slowly reclaimed by nature. The trail runs along what was once the towpath. Despite a reputation for being slow and bumpy, we found the conditions were excellent, with a firm surface that helped us keep moving quickly. The scenery is much different from the GAP too. While the railroad ran through towns and villages, the canal followed the Potomac River, and signs of (modern) civilization are few and far between.
There are 74 locks along the canal, most of which are still intact in one form or another. Each one is an impressive sight, though more impressive still would be to see it in action at its peak.
The bikes took a real beating on the gravel trails, though we made it through with zero mechanical issues or even flats. Just a little chain lube was all it took.
Trains, both cargo and passenger, are a familiar sight along the way.
We saw two of the giant snapping turtles at different points, both just after sundown. This “little” guy was right in the middle of the trail, cruising along, maybe headed to Pittsburgh. He was at least 18 inches wide and 24 inches long; an impressive sight.
Many of the lockhouse structures along the canal have been restored. Pictured here is an example of the type of passenger boat that would have been used along the canal.
Many parts of the Potomac River are unnavigable, which is why the canal was so important for traffic in the 19th Century.
Some of the wooden structures at the locks are still intact.
We needed to stop at a bike shop, and right along the trail in Georgetown is Cycle Life, where we picked up some stuff and refueled at their beautiful cafe. We were especially excited to see a poster from our sister magazine, Dirt Rag, on the wall.
And so we rolled into downtown Washington, which was packed with tourists enjoying the perfect weather and beautiful cherry blossoms. I wish I could have stayed longer, but I had to shoot across town to catch my train ride back to Pittsburgh.
If you’re wondering, my bike computer counted 364 miles from my door back to my door, with more than 30 hours in the saddle in three and half days. Hurts so good.
Stay tuned for more from the National Bike Summit and Karen’s trip back home. You’ll read about it here and in our magazine, so subscribe today!
Update: The train ride home
Several readers have asked about the return trip via Amtrak, so I wanted to share my experience here.
After dropping Karen off at the hotel and saying goodbye, I raced the mile or so to Union Station in DC for the trip back. I had purchased a ticket ahead of time, but from the number of empty seats on the train, it’s not likely they fill up on weekdays. At first I wasn’t sure where to go, standing around outside in my full bike kit, still dirty and stinking from three days on the trails. Finally I just said “whatever” and walked my bike right into the station, which if you haven’t been, is more like a shopping mall than train station. No one batted an eye.
At the ticket counter they checked me in all the Amtrak employees were extremely helpful. There was another young woman with a bike already boxed, and I got the feeling they see bikes come through all the time. I paid $20 for one of the Amtrak bike boxes, which are much larger than a traditional bike box and met the attendant on the opposite side of the station by the baggage carousel to pack it.
I started to get a little worried when I couldn’t get one of the pedals off, but after removing the handlebars from the stem, the bike slid right in the box with one pedal still on. I wasn’t allowed to stash stuff in the box with the bike, but you can get extra cardboard boxes to use for your checked baggage if you have panniers or anything.
The ride itself was great. If you’ve never ridden a train, it’s not quick but it’s very relaxing. You’re on your way with none of the headaches of air travel, and the ride is extremely comfortable. The seven hour ride was over before I knew it, and I was ready for a shower.
In Pittsburgh, they dropped off the bike in the box right in the station where I put the pedals and handlebar back on, handed them the box for recycling and was on my way. I’m definitely going to consider Amtrak for many of my future travels.Tweet
By Karen Brooks, photos by Jon Pratt
A few months ago, a great idea came to me: to ride from our HQ here in Pittsburgh to Washington, DC, for the National Bike Summit in March. The route would be almost entirely on rail-trails, the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal trails. What better way to show our support for publicly funded bicycle projects than by taking advantage of this excellent result – a car-free path all the way to our nation’s capital?
I enthusiastically revealed this idea to my coworkers, and some of them caught the bug and joined up. We came up with a plan for a faster ride out, taking three days, and a more leisurely ride back of five days or so. We’ll be camping along the way, and thus will have a great opportunity to test some bikepacking and camping gear, not to mention a few bikes that are particularly well-suited to the journey. (Look for those reviews in Issue #17, coming out around June 1.)
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and roses… especially not in March in this part of the country. The weather can be temperamental to say the least. (I’m fond of telling transplants that we don’t really have spring so much as a war between winter and summer, starting in March, and eventually summer wins.) One constant is precipitation in one form or another, which is not so terrible in itself – unless feet of snow are covering the trail, a distinct possibility – but it can make the trail surface wheel-suckingly soft. It’s already fairly rough in some areas. A quaint little paved path this is not.
Stephen, our art director, went out on a test run a couple weekends ago and came back shaking his head. “I dunno, man… it was soft. I need different tires or something.” He’s already using 26” mountain bike tires on his Surly Long Haul Trucker. Uh oh.
This past weekend I had the pleasure of meeting Linda McKenna Boxx, President of the Allegheny Trail Alliance, the coalition of organizations that came together to build the Great Allegheny Passage. Even she looked at me like I was crazy when I told her we aimed to get to DC in three days. “You’ll be lucky to be doing 8 mph at times. And it’s flat, and dull. There are no climbs or coasting downhill to break the monotony.” I nodded and smiled as I have at everyone else who expressed doubt about our plan.
But so far, the weather gods seem to be smiling on us. It’s been unseasonably warm and dry, and that trend is set to continue at least through Sunday. Good news for the ride out. That overdue snow will probably fall on our heads on the way back. But – so what. We’re going to demonstrate that rail-trails are worthy additions to our public landscape, and even useful beyond attracting tourism to local economies. After all, we’re essentially commuting to our job – 320 miles away.
We’ll have updates about how the trip went after we get back, so stay tuned. We may even send out some tweets along the way.
Editor’s note: Laura and Russ of The Path Less Pedaled are traveling through New Zealand and sharing with us exclusive dispatches from their trip.
Our three months in New Zealand is coming to a close. We’re writing this final post from Christchurch where we are spending the next day tying up loose ends, packing our bikes in boxes and getting ready for the flight home. Time is frighteningly elastic and its hard for us to believe that its time to leave already.
We came to New Zealand to explore their new proposed cycle trail network. However, in all our talking with people we discovered that the real story was actually a dusty rail trail in the hot and dry Central Otago Region of New Zealand, which is widely popular with New Zealanders but has seemed to be under the radar of most North Americans. The Central Otago Rail Trail is New Zealand’s first rail trail. It had a contentious beginning, but through the dedication of a handful of believers and early adopters it has become the saving grace of a part of New Zealand that was dying on its feet.
In the video, about three weeks of travel is condensed down to a 40 second montage. We quickly glossed over a mechanical failure that necessitated taking the Tranz Alpine train and eventually a bus to Dunedin. There is about 4 seconds of video that shows Laura slowly pedaling up the “steepest street in the world.” There is about two seconds that shows me fly fishing out of a motel window. Time is frighteningly elastic.
Being on the trail was a great relief. To be perfectly honest, we were nearing our fill of New Zealand driving so a 100k stretch of carless gravel was sounding pretty good to us. Being a converted rail line, the grades were pretty easy and the scenery was stunning. The skies felt larger. It was a welcome change to have such vast sight lines after months of being under large canopies of native bush.
When we got on the trail I had a list of scribbled names of people that we should try to talk to if we happened to run into them. We struck gold when we were in Wedderburn. The bartender at the tavern recommended that we go up the hill to see if Graham was around. We caught Graham just in time coming back from some farm work and managed to get him on tape. From our understanding, he had been one of the most vocal opponents of the rail trail but was now a staunch supporter. His testimony of how the rail trail saved the area with his gravelly voice just makes your heart break.
Ultimately, I think the story of the Central Otago Rail Trail was the most important story we found on our trip. It gives a blueprint and a real world example of how bicycle travel and tourism can revitalize an area. There is a lot to learn from those 150 kilometers of gravel which we hope to unpack and present in the future.
This is the last video in our series. It has been challenging but fulfilling to make while traveling. Sometimes it feels like the last three months have been a constant worry about keeping our batteries charged, looking for interesting stories to tell or spending hours in front of a computer editing. We hope you’ve enjoyed it and thanks for watching!
-Russ and Laura
Editor’s note: Laura and Russ of The Path Less Pedaled are traveling through New Zealand and sharing with us exclusive dispatches from their trip.
By Russ Roca
What you’ll probably notice in the video is what’s missing. There is no mention of the International Bike Incident and no real explanation of how we ended up having tea with the mayor. After some long internal debate, I decided not to include mention of the road rage incident in the video. While quite sensational, it was a lot more energy than I wanted to expend on the experience and it would have been something hard to fit in a video we’re trying to keep under ten minutes.
After Wellington we were both feeling pretty down about cycling in New Zealand. You see so many photos of amazing landscapes with hardly a soul and you just assume the riding must be great. What you forget is that New Zealand is doing a little creative storytelling of its own. You don’t see the parade of rented camper vans and tour buses. You don’t see the sandflies. You get a very well composed snapshot of a virgin New Zealand waiting for you to explore it. As much as we tried not to let the incident in Wellington color our view of New Zealand, it couldn’t be helped.
The riding from the Picton to Nelson on Queen Charlotte Drive was spectacular. It’s been noted as one of the best road rides in New Zealand. The road twists and climbs but never too steeply. With every turn up the climbs you get an ever-expanding view of the sound’s startling blue water. You pass through several small bays with tiny settlements and a dairy (convenience store) or fish and chips place. The riding was beautiful enough to almost erase what had happened in Wellington.
Nelson was also a breath of fresh air. While not perfect, it was easily the most bike and pedestrian friendly town we had seen. There were some decent road treatments and what looked like a good number of everyday cyclists and there was also good beer readily available, which much improves your opinion of any city. Free House is easily one of the coolest places to have a beer in NZ. The environment is very laid back and they’ve got a wide and actively rotating selection of beers. They don’t serve food, but you are more than welcome to bring take away dishes from neighboring restaurants. During our stay in Nelson, it was our happy place. We tried a few more pubs in town, but none had the same character as Free House.
Nelson also seemed to be buzzing with touring cyclists. We saw a few more trickle in everyday. It really did give us a hope that the riding would improve which was a big psychological boost. It was real easy to slip into a downward mental spiral after Wellington.
We are in Christchurch right now waiting for a bicycle part before we can move on. The city is still without its central business core, but new signs of life and culture are springing up around its ragged edges. From here, we head down to Dunedin and onward to the Otago Rail Trail, which seems to be the linchpin to New Zealand’s push to promote bicycle tourism.
Editor’s note: Laura and Russ of The Path Less Pedaled are traveling through New Zealand and sharing with us exclusive dispatches from their trip.
By Laura and Russ
One of the reasons we decided to go to New Zealand was because of the NZ Cycle Trail program, a surprising initiative where the central government of New Zealand invested $50 million into the development of cycle trails around the country to create jobs. In this video, we ride The Forgotten World Highway, one of the rides encompassed by the program and meet the team behind administering the funds.
Some mind blowing scenery on the Forgotten World Highway.
The Forgotten World Highway is a 180k stretch of hilly road where you ride through everything from sheep and dairy land to deep native bush. We did the ride in three days with a really long 85k first day. It wasn’t so much the distance that was brutal as it was the sawtooth terrain. People told us it was “rolling hill country.” We imagined the gentle rollers you’d find around Solvang, CA where if you tucked in on the downhill you could just about crest the uphill. This was certainly not that. We would find ourselves climbing hills over 10% grades only to scream back down the other side and repeat. There were no less than 6 significant climbs that first day. By the time we got to that campsite on the hill, we were wrecked.
The Forgotten World Highway had some unsealed sections that we were constantly being warned about, especially after people saw us riding Bromptons. Ironically, the gravel sections were actually the most pleasant, since they had such little traffic. On our second day of riding, we probably saw less than a dozen vehicles. We found out later that many camper van and rental car companies prohibit customers from riding the Forgotten World Highway. Bad for them, good for us. Most of this drama is reduced to a 20 second riding montage that doesn’t really dramatize how challenging it was.
One of our favorite stretches was going through the Taranaki Gorge.
One of the great joys in touring for us is meeting people. Ian and Laurel were a wonderful and hospitable couple. For me, it’s always a delicate moment when I whip out the video camera and start recording. Too early after having met someone and all I get is awkwardness, too late in the evening it becomes a chore. What isn’t shown in the video is that they later invited us in for “tea” (ie dinner) along with the touring family. It was a wonderful evening of glasses of wine and Purangi Plongers (a homemade concoction of dates soaked in liquor).
For those that follow us, conspicuously absent is anything about my road rage incident in Wellington, which has caused quite a stir nationally in NZ. I haven’t quite decided how to work that into the videos. Should it be its own episode? Should it be a short? Should I mention it at all in the videos? I haven’t quite decided.
The stunning coastal walk/bikeway in New Plymouth. Pretty amazing views.
Today, I’m writing from Nelson on the South island. The most bike-friendly town we’ve encountered so far. We’re starting to continue our journey South deep into the bush and less inhabited parts of New Zealand. Electricity and wifi will become less available so doing these videos will be quite interesting.
By Russ Roca
In this episode, we finally start the bicycling portion of our bicycle tour. The video starts with a shot of a beautiful sunny day – flowers in the foreground and rolling surf in the distance. What we left out is that it was actually the first sunny day in about a week. We had tried to leave Waiheke island the day before, but were caught in a torrential down pour. What ensued was a comedy of errors that included bumming a ride with a local to the ferry wharf, his truck running out of diesel, and the ferry being canceled. It was an entertaining sequence captured here, but since it didn’t move the story forward – it was cut.
This is the roughest part about making these videos – killing the darlings. It’s all really sleight of hand. Compressing days into a twenty second montage and expanding a few chance accidents and encounters.
Another thing not mentioned in the video is that, while the ferry took our bikes without a problem, the wharf where we were we boarded was quite small. Instead of loading from the rear of the boat that had more room, we had to straddle a foot and a half of open water and essentially shove our bikes and gear through a tight fitting side door. My fishing rod kept getting hung up as I struggled to get everything in the door without dropping things into the drink. At some point my helmet got caught and my mirror popped off, slowly pirouetting into the blue water below.
Among other things that were lost was Laura’s brake pad. We’re still not quite sure how it mysteriously popped off. The retaining screw was gone, but the braking forces should have kept the pad in the holder. Needless to say, we were both quite horrified that it fell off and that we didn’t have spares. We would have been in really bad shape if we didn’t find those brake pads at the hardware store in Coromandel, since that area of New Zealand is known for its steep hills and fast descents.
Another wonderful sequence that had to be cut was the entire town of Waihi. Reduced to about two seconds of Laura and I toasting beer in front of a pub under an umbrella, Waihi was a fascinating mining town. Right in the town center is a giant active mine that produces both gold and silver (quite a rare occurrence). There’s a bike/ped trail that goes along the rim of the mine and you can peer in as large earth movers and cranes push dirt about in a fairly industrious fashion. Also in Waihi was a wonderful campsite where we stayed – it was butted up against the hills and next to a bubbling trout stream.
Perhaps the best piece of luck was running into Damian Day. He had actually been following our trip for the last year and we happened to be all in the same general area around the same time. We connected through Facebook and coordinated to meet in Rotorua. At the time, we didn’t know about his condition, so were surprised to meet him in person. It took about a day to sort out his speech impediment and begin to really understand him. We stayed at the same backpackers and spent a few hours talking to him in the afternoons and evenings. As we understood him more we began to really appreciate his wit and sense of humor. We were both really inspired by his story and a little saddened. He effectively has no family and has been wandering by bike for the last five years. We parted ways on Christmas Day.
Stay tuned for more episodes of the Kiwi Chronicles!
By Russ Roca
The general advice you’ll get from most bike tourists traveling in New Zealand is to get the hell out of Auckland as fast as possible. We’re not most bike tourists. We love riding in the country but are also fond of cities and love interacting with local bike cultures. We were determined to not leave Auckland until we found some bicycling stories in New Zealand’s largest city. Auckland has been dubbed the “supercity” because a few years ago all the neighboring council regions were absorbed into one council. In terms of bike infrastructure, Auckland is closer to Los Angeles than Portland. Standing outside our backpackers in the Ponsonby neighborhood of Auckland it was dizzying the amount of car traffic whizzing by – this was a long long ways from the Shire.
Most reality shows and journalists have fixers, a local that knows the ins and outs of navigating the city and can help arrange story leads. Anthony Bourdaine does not just step off plane and wander into the first place serving pork he sees and starts chatting away (or maybe he does!). Being a crew of two and essentially winging it we were scrambling to find something bike related. We had managed to find a coffee shop that was delivering roasted coffee to subscribers by cargo bike (didn’t make the final cut), but needed more.
The bicycling gods were listening and we happened to make contact with Barbara Cuthbert, a dynamo of a woman leading the charge to make Auckland more bicycle friendly. She is a force. With her unsinkable upbeat attitude and ability to build consensus she is transforming the city.
We had just met our fixer. She had a thorough knowledge of everything cycling related in the super city. Through her we learned about the Telestra Challenge, a recreational ride that was unique in that it was the first time cyclists would be allowed to legally ride across the Harbor Bridge. She also introduced us to Pippa Coom an elected official that was also part of Frocks on Bike a sort of Auckland Cycle Chic movement. Through her we also got a quick interview with Len Brown the mayor of Auckland! In a single stroke of good luck we had found ourselves in the center of Auckland bicycle advocacy.
Pippa Coom, an Auckland Council board member and advocate for bikes.
I can’t emphasize the amount of luck that went into making this episode. Our bags were literally packed to leave that Thursday but after meeting Barbara we changed our plans and stayed until Monday to cover everything we could. This chance meeting reminded us of what we love about open-ended travel – the ability to change plans at a moments notice. If we had booked things too far out in advance or had been too stubborn about sticking to a schedule, we would have missed out on all these great experiences.
So what did we really think of Auckland? Its cosmopolitan and is indeed quite a “livable” city as the mayor likes to say. We found many cute neighborhoods that had all your daily needs within walking distance. The bus system is fairly good (they do need bike racks on them though). It has a long way to go to be considered really bicycle friendly but we feel hopeful. The idea of non-recreational “everyday” cycling for transportation is remarkably still a new idea but it seems to be catching on. We’re looking forward to coming back to Auckland in a few years to hopefully see some great advances in urban cycling.
We’re sending this dispatch from a beach house on Waiheke Island, a short but stomach-turning ferry ride from Auckland. Watching this first episode it seems like worlds away. Although we have been in New Zealand for less than a week, a lot has happened, including running into the powerful women who run bike advocacy in Auckland, which in turn led to riding on a historic ride across the Harbor Bridge (the first legal crossing by the city’s cyclists) and then meeting and riding with the mayor! But, that is for the next episode.
We wanted this first episode to capture the excitement and touch of sadness that comes with long term travel as well as answering some of the practicalities of traveling by bike. We love our Bromptons and when we travel domestically with them, we usually just gate-check them like a stroller. We were planning to do that, but as the time to leave came there was some anxiety about whether we wanted to go to the trouble of talking our bikes on the plane. We decided the day before leaving we would just DIY some boxes so that led to the “arts and crafts” portion of the video.
One of the challenges I’m facing filming this trip is figuring out exactly how MUCH to film. I was a stills photographer and when I did documentary work, I would just shoot everything and do a hard edit later. Video is a different beast since it takes up so much more hard drive room. I’m learning that fine balance between not over shooting and making sure I have enough to have narrative continuity. This means thinking in establishing shots, medium shots, close-ups, B-roll, etc., It’s a handful to bike tour sometimes, much less trying to shoot and edit a show as you go. We have a new found respect for Les Stroud from Survivor Man after the last few days.
One thing that didn’t make it on film is that we got lost a bit on the way to the city. Not traveling with GPS or a smartphone, we were actually using a Kindle to navigate (hence that shot of Laura on the Kindle). I found an Auckland cyclists’ blog about riding to the airport and we were constantly referring to it as we traveled. The map we had was fine for driving, but not so good if you were trying to find the separated bike trail into the city. Speaking of bike maps, they were almost impossible to find. The airport didn’t have them, the big visitor’s center by the ferry building didn’t have them and neither did any of the bike shops that we visited. We eventually tracked one down at Britomart, the train hub in the city.
That’s it for now. As I write this it is raining outside. We’re at a house on a cliff overlooking the ocean. While the views are good, I’ve got to dig out the external hard drive and start editing the next episode with the hopes of getting it done before we leave Waiheke. Cheers!
Editor’s note: I only met Laura and Russ a few months ago but I’ve been reading their blog – Path Less Pedaled – for years. Plenty of us have dreamed of taking extended bicycle tours but these two have not only taken on the challenge, they’ve made it their livelihood. So I was very excited when they approached us about partnering for some exclusive coverage of their new expedition to New Zealand. Stay tuned over the next few months for the Kiwi Chronicles. -Adam
Our first day of officially shooting for our series was a challenging and windy one. The wind storm of the decade is blowing through Los Angeles. Some neighboring cities have been out of power for 70 hours. Fortunately, where we are staying we’ve been spared the power outages, but not the wind.
I recently got the “dead cat” or windscreen for our shotgun mic, but even with that, the howling winds were at times drowning out the audio. Without much of a choice, (our flight was the next day) we pick a relatively protected spot behind my parent’s garage. It’s not perfect, but it works.
We’ve been traveling and blogging about our bicycle journey since 2009. Before we left I was photographer. Somewhere during the last two years, I got a wild hair to do video while we traveled. It started crudely with a Flip camera, progressed to a camcorder and now we’re shooting with a SLR system. Our site has always been about telling stories from the road. Video seemed like a natural progression, but it certainly has not been easy.
Case in point, the prologue you see before you took the better half of an afternoon to shoot, record and edit. It took multiple takes and battling with the wind. Oh the wind. A bane to cycling and filming both! In some ways, it seems like madness to attempt to produce video content and travel at the same time, but after being on the road for a few years it’s nice to add new challenges.
So we hope you follow us on our new adventure. In future posts, we’ll be including background information about the videos you’re watching, as well as production notes about all the hidden chaos that happens behind the lens.
Russ and Laura
Photos by Kevin Brooker and his family’s ride from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. along the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal towpath. Read his write-up in Bicycle Times Issue #13.Tweet
This adventure touring mountain bike was based off Moots’ popular YBB model. Hear more about it with the widget below.
By Adam Newman
Bruce Gordon is probably the most famous framebuilder you’ve never heard of. Opinionated, stubborn and prolific, he’s been building his own style of adventure touring bikes for more than 20 years. His work also features some of the finest handcrafted road and mountain bikes ever made, including best-of-show winners that can only be described as works of art. Read our exclusive interview with Gordon here.
A self-described “touring nerd,” Gordon began making touring racks in the late ‘70s and once went so far as to build a soybean-laden machine to test their load capabilities, allowing him to further refine and strengthen his design. In the late ‘80s, with the mountain bike boom in full swing, he began building a bike he called the Rock N’ Road, a TIG-welded frame and fork that could be used with 700c wheels on- and off-road. And with the switch to some stronger tubing, the Rock N’ Road became the Rock N’ Road Tour, a rough-road-ready adventure-style loaded touring bike. But those frames were handmade by Gordon and his brand, Bruce Gordon Cycles, in California and he wanted to make a lower-cost option available. This lead to the introduction of the Taiwanese-made Basic Loaded Touring bike.
The TIG-welded 4130 frame features geometry based on the Rock N’ Road Tour still made by Gordon. It is offered in five sizes, the smallest two built around 26” wheels and the three larger sizes with 700c wheels. My tester can easily swallow 700x38c tires and fenders or 45c tires without. There are three water bottle mounts for thirsty riders as well as the usual rack and fender mounts. Available only in a muted gray with blue trim, the bike looks elegant when built and can hide anonymously when locked to a bike rack or take on a colorful style when accessorized.
The BLT is available in both a frame module and as a complete bike. The module includes the frame and fork, a pair of 4130 tubular steel touring racks handmade by Gordon, a sealed-bearing headset, and a stem. Since the racks are designed specifically for this frame, they fit perfectly with no wiggles, rattles or DIY engineering required to install. They are available in black or blue. The racks alone are a $375 value, so when you factor them in to the module’s $750 price, the package is priced competitively against those from major manufacturers.
The choice of a threaded headset and a 1" head tube is unusual these days, but as Gordon says, “It’s worked for more than 100 years.” He reasons a 1-1/8” steel fork steerer is overkill, and the material weight saved with the smaller gauge would be better incorporated into strengthening the fork blades. A minor aesthetic quibble: the headset that comes with the frame and fork is silver, but the included stem is black.
Gordon also offers a build kit chosen to compliment the frame, and our test bike was equipped as such. The shifting is handled by no-nonsense Shimano bar-end shifters. The drivetrain runs through a Deore LX triple crankset with 44-32-22-tooth rings and matching derailleurs. The wheels are handbuilt with Shimano LX hubs and Mavic A119 rims. The WTB mountain-bike style saddle seemed like an odd choice but has been surprisingly comfortable throughout my time on it.
The Cane Creek brake levers come with gum-colored hoods, a nice retro-styled touch. The tires supplied are Schwalbe Marathons, which have always been a personal favorite and offer excellent flat protection, reflective sidewalls and a very smooth ride. The brakes are Shimano R550 cantilevers, which work fine, but come with Shimano’s fixed-length straddle cable, easing installation but limiting adjustability. I’ve always considered cantilever brakes more of “slowers” than “stoppers,” and going down steep hills while loaded required a strong grip.
Though the test bike came with the Deore group, the build kit offered by Gordon is now a Shimano SLX drivetrain with XT hubs in the wheels. The cost of the parts group is $975; however, if you order a complete bike, you will need to factor in the time or cost of assembling it yourself or having your local bike shop do it. There is no pre-assembly available.
There’s no doubt—this is a big bike. At first I balked at the size recommended to me by Gordon: XL, the largest of the five. But once I swapped the riser stem out for one with a neutral rise, it was spot on. At 31lbs. with racks, fenders and pedals installed, it feels planted on the road and the combination of steel tubing, long chainstays and the Schwalbe tires soaked up bumps like few bikes can. It’s a luxury liner for sure. Or maybe a battleship, as the muted gray paint suggests. Of course, it was a bear getting it up the stairs to my second floor walk-up.
Sadly, there is precious little loaded touring to be done in Pittsburgh in January, so the BLT became my commuting weapon of choice. I smashed it into potholes, rode it over curbs, locked it up outside, and it was always up for the task. The 46cm (18.1”) chainstays on the XL size I rode are the longest I’ve ever seen, and while they don’t slow down the cornering as much as I would expect, this bike is definitely not designed for carving apexes.
The 58.5cm (23”) effective top tube was also longer than I would normally think ideal for me, especially on a nonaggressive bike, but the relaxed head tube angle (72°) and high handlebar position left the bar right where I liked it. I had the distinct feeling of sitting down low “in” the bike, rather than up on top of it. Between the fit and the weight, I had to be less aggressive while riding it, in that I couldn’t hop over potholes and steer with my hips the way I could a road bike. I would have liked to been able to try the next size down to compare the ride. The slightly shorter wheelbase might have felt more nimble.
The granny gear on the triple crank came in handy for shuffling up steeper grades, but the wide-range cassette let me stay in the middle ring for most rides around town. That was great because I can’t say I’m a fan of bar-end shifters. The odd placement, awkward cable routing and extra housing required have always been turn-offs, and I was a bit disappointed that down tube shifter bosses are not available. Another retro-grouch curmudgeon complaint: there’s no pump peg.
But how does it carry a load? For the sake of the test, I strapped on some bags and headed out for provisions, namely of the liquid variety. With about 30lbs. evenly distributed front and rear, it slowed the handling predictably, but never felt unstable. Twisting the handlebars produced a bit of front-end flex, so I had to resist racing for town-line sprints when fully loaded. Standing while climbing did not seem to produce the same flex. With half the load, placed only in the rear bags, the front end retained its normal steering response. More than sixty pounds of bike rolling down the road is a lot to handle, but the BLT handled it well.
The BLT is a touring bike for sure, but can handle a lot more. It excels as a commuter, as long as you’re not in a terrible hurry. Throw some big tires on it and you can explore fire roads to your heart’s content. The weight and size are the two main concerns, and I see both as double-edged swords. It’s big and burly. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Gordon only offers his bikes direct to consumers through his website. As a one-man operation, he feels it allows him to more easily connect with customers than going through a dealership. If you have a question about sizing or anything else, call his shop and he’s the one that answers the phone. In fact he prefers speaking to you directly rather than exchanging emails.
- Age: 30
- Height: 6’ 2”
- Weight: 175lbs.
- Inseam: 33"
- Country of Origin: Taiwan
- Price: Module – $750 plus shipping (frame, fork, headset, stem and racks); As tested – $1,725 plus shipping and assembly.
- Weight: 31lbs. (with racks, fenders and pedals installed)
- Sizes Available: XS, S, M, L, XL (tested)
This review originally appeared way back in Issue #10. To make sure you see all our reviews as soon as they’re available, order a subscription for just $19.95.
By Adam Newman
It’s hard to dislike a bike that comes straight from the manufacturer equipped almost exactly the same as your own personal bike. That is the case with the Raleigh Port Townsend, a bike clearly rolling along with the emerging NAHBS-inspired, retro-randonneuring aesthetic trend.
Not that the bike is just good looks. With 9-speed bar-end shifters, stable and neutral geometry, full-coverage fenders, rear rack mounts and an included front rack, it’s got everything you need for commuting or light touring.
And that’s just what I’ve done with it, as it has become my go-to bike for getting around town and putting in big miles on the open road. This photo above is from a day-long ride along the Great Allegheny Passage trail that runs from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md., where it joins the C & O Canal path that continues on to Washington, D.C.
With the long horizontal dropouts and black paint, it would be easy to compare the Port Townsend to a Surly CrossCheck, but while the Raleigh lack’s the Surly’s huge tire clearance and attitude, it does offer more refined geometry and a taller headtube.
I’m going to keep putting on the miles throughout the summer, so keep an eye out for a full review in Bicycle Times Issue #12. Order a subscription by you’ll have it delivered straight to your door!
At the start on Friday in Point State Park, Pittsburgh.
On Friday, Eric and myself will be setting out on a 383-mile un-sanctioned, unofficial and borderline unreasonable race across Pennsylvania. Starting from Point State Park in Pittsburgh and finishing on the Liberty Bell, Crush the Commonwealth is part randonneuring ride, part alleycat and part bike-touring adventure.
Both of us are veterans of the event, which switches direction each year. This year heads eastbound, so the major climbs will be on Day 1 and the prevailing winds will be at our backs (we hope!)
Follow along with our progress and check out the route below.
Adam’s updates will include GPS tags, Eric’s will not. We’ll try to remember to put our names on the posts, but that’s an easy way to tell us apart.
Also: Follow lockring . not . included for more live-blogging and photos.
Along the Gap trail.
Outside Connelsville, moments before this would happen:
That’s not how that’s supposed to look….
Ouch. First the wheel wouldn’t spin because the cog was hitting the hanger, then once we bent it back a bit, we found the cassette would spin in both directions. Not good.
Just before Ohiopyle.
Bikeshop in Rockwood. Almost every town along the trail has one.
By Adam Newman
No, it’s not a sandwich, the BLT stands for Basic Loaded Touring. Welded from 4130 steel, it’s designed with serious loaded touring in mind (thus the name) but functions well as a commuter or all-around bike as well. Designed by legendary framebuilder Bruce Gordon, it’s a Taiwanese version of his popular, hand-made Rock ‘N’ Road touring model. If you don’t recognize the name, Gordon has been at the forefront of custom framebuilding for decades.
Included with each frameset or complete bike is a pair of racks hand-made by Gordon in California. When you factor in their $350+ value, it makes the $750 frame/fork/headset/stem/racks package seem like a steal. Also available is a Shimano SLX and XT build kit that includes everything you need to finish a bike (except pedals) for an additional $975. Compared to other touring bikes on the market, once you factor in the cost of racks, that’s a very competitive price.
I’ve been riding the BLT for a few months now for an upcoming Bicycle Times review. It’s a shame December and January in Pittsburgh are not ideal touring weather, but as a commuter the BLT has shined. It’s a big bike, for sure, and no lightweight, but it glides down the road with comfort and stability. It’s certainly one of the most comfortable bikes I’ve ever ridden, and would be perfect for long days in the saddle.
The riser stem that was included was a bit too high for me to get comfortabe, so I swapped it with a neutral rise stem and retaped the bars, so what you see here will look a bit different from what will be pictured in the magazine. I think the blue tape looks sharp with the blue frame accents and racks.
Keep an eye out in Bicycle Times Issue 10 for the full review.
Tester: Karl Rosengarth
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Weight: 27.8lbs. (with F/R racks, without pedals)
Sizes Available: 44, 46, 48, 50, 52, 54, 55, 56, 57 (tested), 58, 59, 60cm
Roads? Where we’re touring we don’t need roads
By Karl Rosengarth
Co-Motion Cycles of Eugene, Oregon has been hand-crafting bikes since 1988. The company is probably best known for their wide range of tandem offerings. However, they also make a number of "single" bikes, including a rugged 26"-wheeled touring bike called the Pangea, designed for touring in challenging environments. This is this sort of bike that one might choose for an around-the-world tour via a route that includes unimproved roads, or for an adventurous trip over back roads closer to home.
Co-Motion builds the Pangea from extra-large diameter Reynolds 725 chromoly steel tubes that are custom fabricated using Co-Motion’s own tooling. The tandem-sized chainstays are the burliest-looking stays that I’ve ever seen on a single-person bike. The handmade fork on the Pangea has the same oversized diameter as their tandem fork, but uses thinner-gauge tubing, which is designed for the lighter loads that a single bike places on a fork.
How does the Pangea ride? In a nutshell, it felt very stiff when unburdened, but the bike really came into its own when fully loaded. That’s appropriate, considering that this rig is designed for loaded touring over rough roads. Even with my front/rear panniers loaded with three days’ worth of camping gear, the Pangea felt solid and handled precisely when I bombed over washed-out snowmobile trails, not to mention occasional singletrack. I rode confidently over rough terrain that would have produced much sketchier results on a normal-duty touring bike.
Why 26" wheels on a touring bike? The Pangea was Co-Motion’s response to customers who wanted to tour on rough roads and needed a bike that accepted fat tires. The fact that 26" tires and wheels are commonly used on practical bicycles worldwide means that replacement parts are readily available in a pinch. The 26" wheel size opens up a wide spectrum of tire choices—everything from fast-rolling pavement tires, to fatter street rubber, to knobby mountain bike tires.
The Pangea may look like a mountain bike with drop bars, but it’s more appropriate to think of it as a touring bike on steroids. The 17.7" long chainstays were designed for carrying loaded panniers without heel-strike, and they did just that. The bottom bracket is slung low, 10.5" above the ground, for added stability. The low BB did not cause any problems during my limited off-road sessions; however, please remember that the Pangea is not a mountain bike, nor is it designed with a singletrack-specific geometry.
The combination of the 71.5˚ head angle and rigid chromoly fork produced a shimmy-free front end that handled intuitively and felt rock solid. I performed my obligatory "look mom, no hands" test ride, fully loaded at 30+ mph, with positive results. Closer to home, the Pangea felt predictable and stable during the countless shopping runs in which I loaded my front and rear panniers full of groceries.
The complete Pangea (sans pedals) that I tested came with V-brakes and retails for $3631 (a disc brake version is available for $3711). I found the V-brakes sufficient, but if this were my personal bike, I’d have ordered it with disc brakes for the ultimate in stopping power. Co-Motion outfitted my bike with the optional $100 Tubus Tara front rack and $110 Tubus Cargo rear rack.
The Pangea is also available as a frame/fork for $1850 (disc or V-brake) or $1995 for a Rohloff-hub-compatible frame with fork. Included with the purchase price is Co-Motion’s fitting guide service that helps customers determine proper frame size. If a stock bike size just doesn’t cut it, then full-custom geometry can be had for an additional $300 charge. With its stunning "dark metallic orange" paint job and speckless TIG welds, my test frame was a sight to behold. Co-Motion offers 30 stock colors, plus a mind-boggling array of paint upgrade options.
Co-Motion hand-builds all of their wheels. My 36-spoke set included the same DT-Swiss 540 hubs and Velocity Aeroheat rims that Co-Motion uses to build their tandem wheels. Despite some pretty harsh abuse, the wheels have stayed true. A RaceFace Deus XC 46/34/24-tooth triple crank mated to a Shimano XT 11-34-tooth 9-speed cassette provided a sufficiently wide gear range for loaded touring. Climbing steep terrain while fully loaded was never a problem.
Gear changes were flawless, thanks to the Shimano Dura Ace 9-speed bar-end shifters and XT front and XTR rear derailleurs. One complaint is that there was minimal clearance between Tubus lowrider front rack and the front wheel skewer. That made it rather difficult to grasp the nut on the skewer and twist it the few turns required to get the front wheel loose enough to come out of the dropouts.
The stock Continental Town & Country 26"x2.1" tires worked well on pavement, dirt roads and crushed limestone bike paths. My only beef was that under hard braking on wet roads, they seemed to skid out relatively easily, which I attributed to the lack of a tread or siping on the slick center. For my back-road/off-road tour, I switched to a pair of Bontrager XDX 26”x2.1" knobbies and was pleased to see that there was enough chainstay clearance (though I did have to partially deflate them to get them to clear the V-brakes). There was also plenty of room for my Planet Bike fenders. Yes!
There’s no doubt that $1850 for a frame and fork is a fat chunk of change. Frankly, the Pangea is a boutique bike, targeted for the discerning tourer with a bent for less-traveled routes. If you are an everyday commuter who hauls groceries, and might occasionally load the panniers for an overnighter, then there are less expensive bikes that would work well for you. I envision the Pangea customer as a person with an adventure-touring lifestyle who’s willing to pay for the best possible tool for their chosen pursuit. If you’re shopping for the best, then the Pangea deserves a spot on your short list.Tweet
Eugene, Oregon’s Co-Motion Cycles has been hand-crafting bikes since 1988. The company is probably best know for their wide range of tandem offerings. However, one of their single bikes—namely the Pangea 26"-wheeled touring rig—caught my eye at last fall’s Interbike trade show. When it came time to wrangle myself a test bike to kick off the 2010 season, I made a call to Oregon, and was happy to find that Co-Motion had a 57cm Pangea available. Sign me up!
Co-Motion’s website says that the Pangea is " Far from a mountain bike with a drop bar, the Pangea is designed with the stable, responsive touring geometry that has made Co-Motion an industry leader." When I spoke with my contact at Co-Motion, he explained the key differences between the Pangea and your garden variety mountain bike. From the geometry angle, a lower BB height (26.7cm) offers improved loaded stability and longer chainstays (45cm) facilitate carrying loaded panniers without heel-strike.Co-Motion builds the Pangea to shoulder the additional burden that touring places on a bicycle. The Pangea’s extra-burly Reynolds 725 tubes are custom-fabricated for Co-Motion using proprietary specifications and Co-Motion’s own tooling. The handmade fork on the Pangea is oversized diameter—similar in size to Co-Motion’s tandem forks, but using a thinner gage tubing, which is suitable for the "less than tandem sized" loads that a single bike exerts on a fork. The massive-looking chaninstays are the same ones they use on their tandems. Co-Motion advised me that if I decided to put knobby tires on the Pangea and romp off-road it would probably be the most rigid-feeling mountain bike I’d ever ridden. As shipped, the Pangea tipped the Bicycle Times Scales at 27.8 lbs. a testament to it’s burly construction (with F/R Tubus racks, but without pedals).
I look forward to putting my fair share of commuting and touring miles on the Pangea as soon as the weather breaks. I’ll report back later, after I have some ride impression to share. In the meantime, enjoy the eye candy and specifications. And dream a sunny, warm dream for me.
Model year: 2010
Country of origin: USA
Wheel size: 26
Frame material: Super-duty, extra-large diameter Reynolds 725 tubing
Fork: Co-Motion Pangea Super-duty taper-gauge Cro-Moly with CNC steerer
Handlebar: FSA Omega
Front Rack: Tubus Tara
Rear Rack: Tubus Cargo
Stem: FSA OS 150
Headset: Chris King Threadless
Bottom bracket: RaceFace
Crank: RaceFace Deus XC triple
Chain: Shimano HG-93 9spd
Saddle: Selle Italia C2 Flow
Seatpost : Kalloy Seraph Microadjust 29.8mm
Front hub: DT Swiss 540
Rear hub: DT Swiss
Front derailleur: Shimano XT
Rear derailleur: Shimano XTR
Shifters: Shimano Dura Ace 9spd bar end
Cassette: Shimano XT 11-34 9spd
Brakes: Avid Single Digit 7
Rims: Velocity Aeroheat 26"
Tires: Continental Town & Country 26" x 2.1"
Sizes: 44, 46, 48, 50, 52, 54, 55, 56, 57 (tested), 58, 59, 60
Colors: 30 stock colors, custom available
Weight: 27.8 lbs. w/ racks, w/o pedals
MSRP: $3841 w/ optional racks
Company website: www.co-motion.com