My take on the East Coast Greenway from Trenton to Philadelphia

I’m going to be blunt: This stretch of the East Coast Greenway is desperately in need of improvement — i.e. trails. I’m told that’s coming, but for now this is a one-star section.

This is a saner section.

Three of us rode from Trenton to Philadelphia on Sept. 15 as part of the East Coast Greenway’s River Relay that covers the entire 3,000-mile stretch: 25 years of East Coast Greenway, 50-plus rivers and one Greenway.

This was all urban riding– no trail, no suburban residential streets, nothing to give you a break from city biking and city traffic. To be honest, our “Portugal to India” ride, from Newark to Metro Park and then onward to New Brunswick was more pleasant and more interesting — and that’s not something most people associate with North Jersey, let alone Newark.

We started out from downtown Trenton aiming for the Calhoun Street Bridge. At one point, I thought we were headed for a busy highway, but the road forks in an odd spot and dropped us on the bridge. Chaotic Jersey road design and signposting, I thought…

At least the view of the Delaware River from the bridge was pretty:

On the Pennsylvania side, we picked up state Bike Route E (as in East Coast Greenway) … but don’t be fooled. This is hardly great bike infrastructure. Oh, it started out OK. West Trenton Road looks like a main suburban road, but it’s wide and there wasn’t much traffic. After several miles, though, we were on State Road 413. This is for hardy cyclists only; think wide, major road with strip malls, plus crossing an intersection with a road leading to Interstate 276 and of course traffic coming off the interstate too. Drivers saw us coming, so nothing scary happened. I know this is the reality of a route that connects cities rather than sticking to the middle of nowhere — there is always a bad stretch. The good news is that the route will look very different in four years when some projects are finished (pardon my cynicism when I bet it will be 6). Certainly the map showing the future ECG route looks much more appealing.

I just kept wondering who’d get a flat from the junk on the shoulder.

So I was quite surprised when Bristol Pike — U.S. Highway 13 — turned out to be far nicer. For one, it was freshly paved. And there was a bike lane. It even felt fairly sane. I thought we’d be cruising.

But then one of us got a flat. Yes, of course it was the rear wheel. We pulled over on the sidewalk in front of a used car dealership to swap out the inner tube. The two men working there wandered over to see what was up. They nicely offered us water, use of the restrooms … but also gave us a different perspective on Philadelphia.

Business is slow, I heard, and it’s due to the bad economy — in this case, too many drugs. And these days, drugs means opioids and heroin. We apparently had just gone through a town with lots of (unregulated) halfway houses for addicts who had gone through substance-abuse treatment and were not far from a north Philadelphia neighborhood that he described as the epicenter of the opioid crisis. He never went into Philly without his gun, and he warned us to be careful. We thought he was a bit OTT and we certainly weren’t going to go find ourselves some guns.

Not that our route went through that part of town anyway. We stayed pretty close to the Delaware River but only once actually saw it. That was when we did our special Relay task and collected our sample of Delaware River water in Pleasant Hill Park. We found a bit of trail … but then it’s blocked by the Police Department not wanting anyone near its gun range (not that we heard any shots). Also OTT.  This says safety upgrades would mean that section would open in the summer of 2017, but obviously that hasn’t happened.

Collecting water samples from the Delaware River

Apparently there are a number of unconnected trail segments along the northern Delaware River, and I’d hoped we’d have been able to ride some of them. But nope. Gaps supposedly will be closed in the coming years. Certainly the people of north Philadelphia deserve more trails as well as access to the waterfront. And the East Coast Greenway would have a more direct and scenic route that also would serve riders of all abilities.

And so we stuck to city roads, biggish ones like Torresdale, Frankford and Aramingo, moving away from the waterfront and then back toward it, finally reaching hipster Northern Liberties. Then it was onto the bike lanes on Spring Garden to the Schuylkill River and the train home. Total mileage, including getting to and from our train station and then from the Trenton station to the start: 44 miles.

Did we miss something that would have made the ride more rewarding?

Thank you, East Coast Greenway and Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia, for working to create new trails and upgrade the route. Thanks, too, for the bike lanes we found!

“Trenton Makes, the World Takes” — or at least it used to be that way

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We discover a ‘secret’ part of the Lawrence-Hopewell Trail

It’s exciting to see the progress this 22-mile loop of a trail is making. Earlier this year, we biked on a new section of the Lawrence-Hopewell Trail and some other parts that we hadn’t yet discovered.

This past weekend, on a version of our usual ride out to Hopewell and the Sourlands, we found a bit more. This piece doesn’t even show up on the map on the trail’s website, maybe because it doesn’t yet really link to anything.

See that white section between the two strips of red dots? It’s in there, to the left of Carter Road. It’s paved, until it’s not, on the way to (I think) Bailey Drive.

We found this “secret” section when we turned into the Mount Rose Preserve to see where the road took us and discovered a kiosk and map in a somewhat derelict parking lot. (Turns out this was home to an AT&T corporate educational facility that was torn down last year — and part of the nation’s first corporate campus.) And the map pointed us to a 0.2-mile uneven dirt path full of tree roots and ruts (we walked our road bikes) that spilled out onto the trail. Where dirt meets blacktop is the photo at the very top.

We then turned east, toward Carter Road. It meets the road via what I always took to be a driveway to some hidden home.

Opposite it, though, are signs that another section of the trail is coming.

The LHT received a $1 million grant for a 1-mile segment that will go behind two buildings, including a Bristol-Myers Squibb office,  and connect to Cleveland Road. That’s great news for cyclists who don’t feel comfortable on Carter, a busy road (and a fast, bumpy one too with no real shoulder when headed downhill toward Princeton). Cleveland is quiet, as is the continuation known as Pretty Brook, though both lack shoulders. I could see a mowed section off to the side where I could imagine the trail going for part of this section, unless it just sticks to the road, as it does in some residential areas. (I also think it ran out of possible right of way for a trail, but that’s without looking at a map.)And when you turn south on Province Line Road, you’re on the section where a bridge has been closed to traffic, so it’s quiet too. Just brace yourself for a steep climb after the bridge. And while we turned left onto Ettl Drive to make our way to Princeton, the LHT will one day go right art that point, to ETS and another completed section.

But back to the BMS site. What we couldn’t figure out is whether the work we’re seeing is part of the trail — or a spur that will link the main door of the Bristol-Myers Squibb building to the trail.

Regardless, when this extra mile is done, the trail will be 93% finished.

This little discovery was part of a 33-mile ride. Saturday night we rode a bit more of the Lawrence-Hopewell Trail as we did two loops (12 miles total) in the Full Moon Bike Ride through the woods and around a lake (with admittedly less than a full moon). An excuse to light up the bike! (Thanks again for the present, Ken.)

And finally, back-to-back days on the bike. 51 miles to Lambertville and back. Hilly. On a low-energy day. Here’s to a flat East Coast Greenway ride!

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Heading to points south … in Jersey

Here’s a hat tip to the Anchor House riders … our Labor Day ride was a 57-miler that included the 2013 Cory’s Ride (named after a 15-year-old Anchor House rider who was killed on the last day of the 1998 Anchor House ride).

This took us from the edge of Allentown, which has been on many of our rides, past so many farms and fields of the Garden State as far as Southampton — about as far south as Cherry Hill. Definitely mostly new territory for us. It’s south Jersey, though, so it was essentially flat. (The hilly ride planned for Sunday was rained out. Such a *shame*… though I really need more back-to-back days in the saddle as the big East Coast Greenway ride approaches.)

This wasn’t really an adventure-filled trip — unless you count stopping at a couple of farm stands to price out a bushel of tomatoes for canning (and, yes, I came home with some.)

This might have been our southern-most spot:

southampton nj

We came across two rail-trails: the 2-mile-ish unpaved Y-shaped Pemberton rail trail in Pemberton Township and the 1.5-mile paved Kinkora trail in Columbus. The Kinkora is supposed to eventually connect to the Delaware River Heritage Trail/East Coast Greenway spur route being developed between Trenton and Camden.

We skipped the trails, though, and stuck to the road. Traffic was light but what a pleasant surprise to find these bike lanes as soon as we hit Pemberton Township.

pemberton bike lane

Then there was this. I’m trying to imagine the sellers … and the buyers. Sounds like desperation.

diabetic test strips sign



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Single-tracking along the Delaware Canal

d&l single trackWell, only some of the time.

But the trail on the Pennsylvania side of Delaware River (it’s actually along the Delaware Canal, which runs parallel to the river) is quite different from the one on the New Jersey side, to say nothing of the Delaware & Raritan Canal towpath from Trenton through Princeton and to New Brunswick.

Riding more of the Delaware and Lehigh Trail is one of my goals for this year. A few years ago four of us rode north and south of Jim Thorpe, PA., and that’s when I realized that most of this 165-mile route is open. So today we drove to Frenchtown, NJ, a small town that is full of people walking and biking along the D&R Canal from the south, eating and drinking at local spots and meandering through stores. In other words, a town that definitely feels the economic impact of this trail, even though it’s at the northern terminus.

We crossed the bridge to the Pennsylvania side and it was … quiet.

No town. Not even a sign at the end of the bridge telling us where to find the towpath/trail (that would be left and then a quick right, along a quiet road and then left just before the covered bridge and between a few homes  … oh, that last part is signposted, just not branded Delaware Canal, let alone Delaware and Lehigh Trail).

Our first impression of the trail: narrower than in New Jersey. And within a few miles it narrowed some more. At one point it really was just a single track. At other points, it was two tracks, with a much wider strip of grass down the middle. At times it was dusty, at other times a bit rocky (as in not comfortable crushed stone dust). To be fair, the D&R from Trenton to New Brunswick has its share of different road surfaces, and in both places the variety makes for a nice change of pace. But you definitely want to do this on a hybrid, not a road bike.

The landscape was more open than the woods on the New Jersey trails, and you’ll never see something like the Nockamixon Cliffs on the Jersey trails — 300 feet of sheer rock.

d&l wide trail cropped

I was surprised by the number of places where we could have stopped for a bite, or at least some ice cream, either right on the trail or on the other side of the canal, along the road, especially considering how isolated it felt. (I voted for the 24-flavor soft-serve place but was ignored.) We saw a good number of people using the trail, even if not as many as on the Jersey side. So there’s potential for more economic impact with just a bit more promotion.

There’s signage. Not great signage, like Great Allegheny Passage great. Or even like the signage we found on the D&L much further north. For one thing, I’d have liked to have known how far we were from Easton, the first real city in our path, especially as we got close. It wouldn’t be hard to add information about amenities (mostly food and drink) along the route, and it doesn’t need to be fancy, even as basic as a symbol and mileage.

But we didn’t make it to Easton. This stopped us a few miles short of the Easton Dam (where the Lehigh flows into the Delaware), let alone downtown Easton. It didn’t look deep, but it seemed too long to try to just coast through.

d&l spillway

Next time.

Our ride: 35 miles. There’s free all-day parking along the trail in Frenchtown, between the river and the Bridge Cafe. (No overnight parking allowed, in case you were thinking of a bike overnight to, oh, Bethlehem. Sorry, that would be me.) There were plenty of open spots at 10 a.m. but none when we got back after 3 p.m.

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Bikes, beer … and church?

Even I, who am not much of a beer drinker at all, know that bikes and beer seem to go together.

But church too?

Two experiences this month make me a believer.

The first sign was literally a sign outside Rehoboth Beach, Del., home of behemoth craft brewer Dogfish Head Brewery. We were riding an 18-mile loop via Lewes and the Junction and Breakwater Trail when this appeared before us:

We debated the hidden meaning of the cross. And the sword (I went with King Arthur and Excalibur). Plus the name.

There was only one way to find out: to walk past the true believers in the beer garden and into this oversized steel shed of a building that certainly doesn’t signal a traditional house of worship … and ask.

And yes, there really is a church connection. Revelation Craft Brewing Co.‘s original plan was to use a decommissioned (or perhaps desacralized?) church for the microbrewery. That fell through for reasons I didn’t get (but may yet happen).

But that’s not the only story behind the name. The beer should “reveal itself” as you drink. And like all these new breweries, they are trying a few ways to stand out. (I would go for the Berliner Weisse with either strawberries or peach versus, oh, the smoked oyster stout — made with local oysters, of course.) Clearly some feel the taste is quite a revelation.

Our second sign came today, when we finally made it to Screamin’ Hill, New Jersey’s only farm brewery, when it is open (and at 10 hours a week, that’s not much more than some churches). We’d ridden by several times on Sundays … one of the five days each week that it is closed.

And where does this name come from? One of the local hellraisers many, many years ago who one day repented for his numerous sins, became a preacher at the church just up the road (that happens to be the top of the hill) and whose sermons had a reputation for being so loud that the hill became known as Screaming Hill.

No one was screaming when we were there. But it certainly was busy. The parking lot (which admittedly isn’t very large) was already full, and it wasn’t even 1 p.m. (It opened at noon.) Various regulations mean it’s a bring your own food place, which is a nice flip on Jersey’s many BYOB places. People had brought coolers full of chips, salsas and more to pair with the beer and just enjoy the sunshine. I spotted one pizza box, which would also be my idea — if I wasn’t arriving by bike. Alas, all we had were a couple of Clif bars.

We ran into a quite few other cyclists: a woman asked if I was an Anchor House rider because it’s been 4 years and I still haven’t taken off the name tag from the bag hanging off my seat stem and it turns out we both rode the same year, only she has stayed with it (read about that ride on my blog from that year); a man in a Brooklyn Brewery cycle jersey started talking to us about rides in the area; but then a woman who handles memberships for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia broke in because I was wearing an East Coast Greenway jersey, and that conversation continued until they announced a brewery tour. And on our way out, we crossed paths with two cyclists from our town (strangers) who’d just biked out for the first time too.

Honestly, I’m surprised there weren’t more. Where are you, club riders?

When we arrived, there were nine beers on tap, but that wasn’t expected to last long. The place can barely keep up with demand, and it has outgrown its space, as we saw on our tour. (Another building is planned, on another part of the farm.) They can make up to six beers at a time, and each takes 14-22 days, depending on type (average is 18 — one more of those facts we learned on the tour.) It’s a farm brewery because it gets its wheat, rye and much of its barley from the 500-acre farm it sits on, plus other ingredients like habaneros (butterfly them and toss in for the final 10 minutes or so), raspberries (that would be my beer, though it wasn’t a Belgian style lambic) and pumpkin.

As you can see, there’s not much extra storage capacity.

A pint is $6, a 5-ounce glass for wimps like me is $2, and a flight of four of them is $8.

To all those supporting me on the East Coast Greenway ride in October (oh yeah, here’s the fundraising link): want to ride out one day with us? Just need to find a SAG volunteer for the pizza.

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The New Jersey version of Flanders fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow.

And in New Jersey, instead of poppies we found … fields of amaranth?

Also rows and rows of zinnias and coxcomb, but they weren’t as striking.

We also came across this historical marker as part of Sunday’s 45-mile ride to get me ready for a 385-mile East Coast Greenway adventure. Got to say, the connection to greatness in this case seems pretty weak as these things go. But I googled him anyway … he was born in 1686 and died in 1736. And he had a brother named Abraham to boot. (And a son named Abraham too, but it was John, his first child and whose grave says “Virginia John,” who leads to Honest Abe.)

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Too much he-man strength

busted inner tubeTime to get serious about my training if I’m going to ride 385 miles of the East Coast Greenway over six days come October. So today three of us headed into the hills and tacked on an extra 10-mile loop to our usual route to give us 50 miles.

We were just about to start on yet another hill when I heard a strange clack, clack. No, it wasn’t the sensor and reader for my cycle computer touching. We looked a little closer and discovered my tire had bulged out on one side and was hitting the brake pad. How this happened somewhere after mile 30 and not at the start is beyond me, but the easy solution was to let out some air, get the tire back inside the rim and pump it back up.

If only!

First we struggled to get the mini pump to properly attach to the valve. We even tried with another pump. Then we struggled to get the pump off. Air out. We tried again. And we let out all the air. And then we couldn’t get any air in.

What had we done?

With all that wrestling to get the pump off, the guys (because it wasn’t me!) had actually pulled the valve out of the inner tube! This one was history. And we were miles and a long uphill and downhill from the nearest bike shop.

Fortunately someone (not me!) had a spare tube. Once again, no air.

bike repairIt turns out that one had a small cut, caused perhaps by tools tucked in alongside it in the under-seat bag. We could quickly patch it, which I did, but fortunately another someone else (again, not me) had a spare tube. By this time we’d had enough practice with the pump and — phew — at the end heard the satisfying “pop” as the pump came off cleanly.

Back on the road!



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