Pittsburgh to Washington? Round One to the Sleep Monster …

It was one of those ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goals’. Ride my bike the 530 km from Pittsburgh to D.C. along the Great Allegheny and C&O Canal bike paths—in a single 24h stage.  If the stars aligned, would be my longest distance yet. Unfortunately, they didn’t and decided to bail after 341 km. But still, it was great ride …

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I was in Washington D.C. at the World Bank’s headquarters, and also participating in a conference.  I have a bike I leave here—actually, I have bikes *everywhere* I work—and so has been getting in a lot of 50-75 km rides, but really wanted to ‘go long’.  I had long wanted to do the Great Allegheny trail and when I found that there was train from Washington to Pittsburgh which arrived at midnight a plan began to form…

I was running a major workshop at the World Bank on Friday. I would leave at 15:00, cycle to Union Station, get my bike on the train, take a sleeping pill and get some sleep, then ride 24 h back. Easy peasy…

The first problem was getting the bike on the train. I wrote the organization who runs the trail and they said that there was no way to take my bike on the train. They were wrong … after checking with Amtrak all I had to do was take my bike to counter 16 at Union Station, pay $10 for a box and $15 for the bike, and it would be on the train. So I zoomed over after work, followed the instructions and soon found myself sans-bicycle, hoping it would make the train.

Having travelled by train in Europe I’ve been very spoiled as they know how to run a train. By comparison, Amtrak was chaotic. There was a long queue of people, then someone called out in the hall for us to separate ourselves. We at the back didn’t hear how, but it seemed those going further were to board first. Anyway, after three checks of our tickets we got on board. It was a small world—my seat mate had worked with a colleague at the World Bank and the two guys behind us had ridden the Tour Divide route, and were about to do the same ride I was aiming for, but at a more leisurely pace!

The only problem was that I didn’t sleep more than 2 h on the train. Not good …

We got to Pittsburgh at midnight and I put my bike together and soon was off.  The streets were empty but it was cold—about 10 degrees C at most. As the night wore on it went as low as –1 C which is not what one expects for late May in this part of the USA!  After getting lost in Pittsburgh a few times—including finding myself on the Interstate (it said no pedestrians; nothing about cyclists!)—I found myself on the Great Allegheny Trail.

It’s a great ride which follows rivers south towards the Potomac. Of course riding at midnight there was not a lot of traffic, but when the sun came up the views were spectacular! Must come back and do it in the daylight.

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I had borrowed a light from a colleague Chris De Serio which I tested and found it had 10 hours of light.  With about 540 km to ride, I had to maintain a speed of about 23-24 km/h to make it back to D.C. in 24+ hours—assuming about 10 h of riding in the dark.  So I had a great incentive to keep the pace up which I did. The trail was in excellent shape and the cold served to inspire me to ride hard. I went through the night without a break and got to the town of Confluence as the sun came up, thoroughly frozen, but having made acceptable time.

There was a cafe open and I went in for breakfast. 2 x hot chocolates and an order of pancakes and scrambled eggs.  Even though I had ridden over 120 km, with only nibbles, I could only eat half the breakfast they served.  Way too much food served in this country …

The day warmed up nicely and had perfect cyclinDSC_0035g weather with blue sky and about 23 degrees C temperature. Made good time and at one point crossed the famous ‘Mason-Dixon Line’ which separated the slave states of the South from the non-slave states of the North.  There was a fellow with a recumbent bicycle and a photographer posing at the line. I would not be seen dead on one of those … but to each their own!

Soon I came to the Savage Tunnel which was about 1 km long, marking the end of the gentle uphill climb I had been on for some time (I love the 3% grades of railways!) and then it was a fast downhill run next to a railway line towards Cumberland which I reached at 11:30.   I had done the 240 km ride in just over 11 h, with one break. Not bad, but with an average speed of around 22 km/h I was below my target speed, but that was to be partially expected from riding during the night.

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I grabbed an early lunch and then turned left onto the C&O Canal. I last rode this with my friend Mike Kerley two years ago when training for the Tour Divide so I was familiar with the route. It was just perfect, save for the large number of tourist riders that were on the trail!

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The first hour out of Cumberland I was averaging about 25 km/h but I knew I had to dial back the pace so as not to blow up. I felt really good then suddenly from nowhere the ‘Sleep Monster’ hit me.

Anyone who has done endurance racing knows what I mean. You are feeling 100% then within the space of a few minutes this fog appears over you and it is all you can do to keep riding. I soldiered on for an hour but I knew I was going to be in trouble because I simply did not have time to stop for 1-2 h and have a power sleep: if I did that I would not be able to make D.C. before my lights when out.

Eventually I decided that if I could take a 30 minute power nap it may suffice so pulled over in a suitable spot and collapsed in the shade. Of course this was the domain of a very noisy squirrel who, even after I chucked a stick at it, continued to make a racket. No power nap for me so may as well get back on the bike and press on.

I got to the 320 km mark (200 miles) about 13:00 which meant that I was pretty well at the cusp of being able to make my midnight deadline. Took the photo below to show it … but my tiredness was really affecting my performance and I knew that I would not be able to keep it up without having a sleep.

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The town of Hancock was 20 km further down the road and by the time I got there it was clear that I would not be able to complete the trip as planned. So I uncharacteristically decided to bail and grab a shuttle back to D.C.   341 km with an average speed of 22.8 km/h.  Not what I had hoped, but respectable.

I’ll be back to try this again. I think that it is realistic to do it in 26+ h. But next time, I’ll have a dynamo so won’t have to worry about running out of light… It was a good experience as it confirmed the need to sleep when you need it. Duh many would say!

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