A shakedown ride on the D&L Trail

We’re planning a five-day ride in Vermont and Canada. The route is picked out, the hotels booked — yes, this is credit-card touring. But there’s no support crew … no one to haul our bags from place to place. And I want to bring my carbon-fiber road bike, which can’t handle a rack and panniers. What to do?

A bikepacking class at REI led to buying a bikepacking bag that attaches to the seat and seatpost. My favorite local bike shop suggested some slightly wider tires that can handle trails, rather than my slick road tires. But I still needed to make sure it would all work. And Clive’s new toy is a carbon “gravel-grinder” bike that can handle a rack and panniers, but not unlimited weight.

Time to test out or new setups. A section of the D&L Trail — from Morrisville, opposite Trenton, to Bristol Borough — seemed perfect. It’s a new ride for us, and I’ve been wanting to check out Bristol ever since I binge-watched Hulu’s Small Business Revolution show.

This is my new bag, packed with almost as much as I’ll take on the road, light packer that I am, or am forced to be:And new tires:This is Clive’s set-up (he’ll carry the bulkier stuff):

We parked near the Calhoun Street Bridge, next to the elevated banks of the Delaware River. Here’s the landmark for those who want to do the same:

And off we went.

This section of the 165-mile Delaware & Lehigh Trail has some workarounds, some official, others definitely not. (Hint: follow the dirt paths.) And it’s clear there have been some improvements, notably the pair of underpasses that are so new there isn’t yet graffiti (I say ask high schoolers to paint a mural to keep it nice). Construction on another — a tunnel through an embankment! — is happening.

Given the day’s heat, it was nice to spend so much time in the shade. The trail surface is mostly a brown crushed stone, no problem at all for the new tires (and probably just fine for my road tires too). It was wide in some spots, narrow in others. We were just about always next to the Delaware Canal, which starts in Easton and heads south to Bristol. It opened in 1832 and was big for a few decades carrying coal, pretty much like the Delaware and Raritan Canal in New Jersey that opened a few years later. Business declined, the canal operator eventually went bust … and today we have a park, officially known here as the Delaware Canal State Park. I just wish the water wasn’t so stagnant and sections weren’t dominated with algae.

The Delaware & Lehigh Trail isn’t yet the amazing and wildly popular Great Allegheny Passage, but it has the potential to get there. The D&L will be longer; the GAP is 150 miles (though many keep going with the C&O to Washington). There’s easy access from Philadelphia via rail up to Trenton (the GAP has slow-moving Amtrak). I’ve ridden some other sections — you can read about those adventures here and here.

The section we just rode is part of the incredible developing Circuit Trails, intended to be a 750-mile network of trails in the Greater Philadelphia area, which can create opportunities for longer rides in lots of directions. Or keep riding further up the D&L to as far near Uhlerstown, cross to the Jersey side at Frenchtown and head back down  on the D&R Canal, then the developing Delaware River Heritage Trail toward Philly. Or just keep going north past Jim Thorpe to White Haven and beyond.

This part of the D&L also will become part of the 3,000-mile East Coast Greenway connecting cities from the Canadian border in eastern Maine to Key West (got to mention this blog tracking the adventures of two women who just biked it all) — and it’s already so much nicer than Pennsylvania Bicycle Route E that we followed last year on a ride from Trenton to Philadelphia. Once the gaps on this section are closed (unclear how long that will take), I’ll be excited to see some wayfinding signage added.

And what’s Bristol like? It’s picking itself up, and we’re told it’s quite different from the Bristol of 10 or 15 years ago. I don’t want to say it’s rapidly gentrifying, but it’s tidy and downtown is full of businesses, including the requisite quirky coffee shop and a hipster wood-burning pizza joint.

I loved how unused tennis courts became an unused skateboard park became a bustling community garden, with just about every raised bed claimed. Flowers, tomatoes, peppers, salad greens, cabbage … you name it.

There’s now docking space on the river, which is bringing in foot traffic, and the theater on the river is another draw. I just hope borough officials realize what the D&L Trail and the East Coast Greenway could do for business too.

Our day? 22 miles. And we are now set for the longer ride.

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The D&R Canal: The New Jersey tough version of the Erie Canal

3C0C266E-30D6-4F17-81AD-AED4BBC775CBI love combining my bike rides with a bit of history.

So to coincide with a couple of one-day road closures of busy Canal Road in Franklin Township, I’ve organized some family-friendly bike rides for the East Coast Greenway. On the first one, a couple of weeks ago, a half-dozen of us braved the rain to pepper Bob (from the non-profit D&R Canal Watch) with questions about the canal, once one of the busiest navigational canals in the country.

FBB503D8-EBBA-41CE-AE32-8817EB2926C9You know the song about the Erie Canal? That one is far, far longer than the D&R, but the D&R is wider (75 feet across) and deeper (8 feet vs 4 feet), so it could handle more kinds of boats. And that line in the song about “low bridge, everybody down”? Not a problem on the D&R because there are no bridges to go under. So not only could it handle barges but also steam-powered boats.

Bottom line is it’s tougher and stronger than the Erie Canal, even if it is shorter. Call it Jersey tough.

How did this canal get built? Mostly by Irishmen, digging with shovels, no fancy equipment. Companies had 10-mile stretches to big and they recruited workers by the thousands. Mostly immigrants, no surprise there. Recruited to come to America, no less. It took from 1830 to 1834 to do the work; the Erie Canal had opened about a decade earlier.

And what was it used to transport? Coal. Lots of coal. Taking the canal from the Raritan River in New Brunswick to the Delaware River in Bordentown and then the Delaware down to Philadelphia was faster, safer and cheaper than sailing from New York to Philly via Cape May. And the company that owned the canal made lots of money until 1892, the last profitable year, and the canal was still used for transportation into 1932.

Its encore life before becoming a state park (and the longest off-road section of the East Coast Greenway in New Jersey)? A water supply system.

And the next bike ride with history? Coming up July 8: Following in the footsteps of George Washington … and his spy back in 1777, when no one was dreaming of the canal.


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Hills and more hills

Sometimes you just have to suck it up and ride hills.

We had decided we wanted to ride Bike New York’s Discover Hudson Valley Ride. And while we came to our senses and opted out of the 75-miler (with 4,000+ feet of climbing!), the 55-mile route still came advertised with 2,900 feet of climbing.

Time to try something other than our usual.

So we headed across the state line and biked from Newtown to Doylestown. Our friend Ken claims he left out the steepest hill, but this was more than gentle rollers!

Doylestown was worth it, though — a cute, vibrant downtown with the requisite quirky coffee shop (next time, though, I’m going to the empanada place), a “cultural district” with a couple of museums and then Fonthill Castle, which from a distance you’d never guess is made of concrete. Next time, the tour.

The bottom line: 45 miles, 2,600 feet of climbing … OK, we can do this!

So off we went to Poughkeepsie with a strategy to fuel up the night before at the Culinary Institute’s all-you-can-eat pasta night. I tried, but oh how I failed. I even passed up seconds on dessert!

Sunday’s weather was great for riding … not too hot, not too cold, no rain aside from a minute of spitting toward the end (and the real rain didn’t hit until well after we’d left). First we biked over the Walkway Over the Hudson, something we’d done last year, but not when it was sunny. We went to the end of the Hudson Valley Rail-Trail (now in the midst of an expansion that will connect to other trails — yay!), then took the road. The route bypassed the small downtown of Highland before getting us back on the bridge, then through Poughkeepsie and out in the country.

I kept waiting for a killer hill, but it never seemed to come. (Not that other people didn’t walk. Strangers, of course. Not one of us.) Maybe they were saving it for the 75- and 100-milers? Or maybe that training paid off?

But I did find something else I was waiting for. At the last rest stop. Pie! Bike New York treats its riders well.


(And then I wonder why cycling doesn’t necessarily lead to weight loss!)





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A cheese stop along the Columbia Trail

I find biking is always more fun when you have a destination in mind. This time, the plan was not only would we discover the gravel-packed Columbia Trail in Hunterdon and Morris counties, but we would also stop at Valley Shepherd Creamery.

If only it all went so smoothly.

We were barely out of the parking lot in High Bridge when my rear tire felt soft. Back to car, out came a floor pump.

Then 10 miles later or so, it was really soft. A flat. The second in two days. Ugh. I swapped out the tube … and found a tiny piece of metal wire poking through the tire. Thanks.

Of course I’d forgotten where we were supposed to turn off the trail for Valley Shepherd. I was expecting a bigger road, not the (tiny) center of Long Valley. And the signage is really bad, even by the low standards of many trails. (How about consistent mileage markers across both counties? Or be truly radical and include distance to the next town and amenities, not just to the Morris County trailhead?) So we overshot, backtracked and headed the half-mile or so off the trail, past a brewery (maybe next time) and to the dairy. I went straight for the sample of goat cheese … mmm, so creamy but also awakened some hunger pangs.

Unfortunately, there was no time to linger because we had a party to get to, or I would have debated the other cheese offerings (we went for goat cheese with blueberries, for the sake of novelty) and certainly had some gelato made from cow and sheep milk.

That’s one reason to come back. Another is to bike at the bottom of the Ken Lockwood Gorge, along the Raritan River (we thought the dead-end sign meant … dead end, for cyclists too), and to pause in the towns along the route.

And if I make it back with a car? The creamery sells just the thing for the garden: 40-pound bags of “ewe poo.”

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I got to ride with Lisa and Dee!

Dee and Lisa

I’ve been religiously following the blog of the East Coast Greenway’s communications boss and her friend as they ride this 3,000-mile route from Key West to Calais, Maine, impatiently checking for the latest update. Their Florida stories hinted at what I have yet to experience, and once they reached Savannah, I could compare to my own recollections of riding the route, a one-week stretch every year for the past few years. But mostly I would just think: I want to be out on my bike too.

So of course I had to host them one night … and throw a weekday party for them. And when they suggested I ride with them the next day, how could I say no? (Unless my boss did, which he didn’t.)

The plan was to follow the D&R Canal towpath up to New Brunswick and then take the road as far as we got, until it was time to hop the train, me back home and them to meet a friend in New York City.

So off we pedaled, past a blue heron picking its way atop the pipeline already in place to dredge the canal, past a dozen or more turtles sunning themselves on one of the many partially submerged tree limbs, past ducks that hissed as we passed too close to their ducklings.

The surface varied. Parts were badly rutted: The canal had overflowed in some spots during recent heavy rains, washing away a coating of pebbles and exposing jagged spillway stones that our bikes weren’t happy about. Lisa’s front handlebar bag jostled loose at one point, and we couldn’t get the screw to reattach. Other damage probably dated back to some nasty Nor’easters in March. But as we moved further north, past East Millstone, the surface was smooth and we could lose ourselves in conversation rather than dodging potholes and puddles.

Of course, it couldn’t last. I got a flat tire around the time we crossed the Raritan River from New Brunswick into Highland Park. Although I had a spare tube and fixed the flat, my pumping skills left it soft enough to want a bike shop … or the train home.

Guess what we chose.

Sorry I was such a bad influence.

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National Trails Day: The Middlesex Greenway

D10DB3DD-BEE1-4BA2-AEF8-AA095947C327I spent part of National Trails Day — June 2 — on the Middlesex Greenway, a 3 1/2-mile trail going through Metuchen, Edison and Woodbridge. Part of it doubles as the East Coast Greenway. It was amazing how many people were using the trail early on a Saturday morning. What a great community amenity— and it’s within blocks of the train station, new condos, downtown and a new supermarket, so really useful for transportation and running errands too.

A group of enthusiastic trail advocates are trying to extend it at either end. This is at the Metuchen end: rails still in place on one side with a rail-free section next to it perfect for a trail. But making that happen means getting Conrail and two rail operators to sit down and talk, and then say yes. One day…

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Discovering Duke Farms on a bike

Here’s a family-friendly place to ride a bike that you might not expect: Duke Farms in Hillsborough, NJ.

This is the estate of tobacco heiress Doris Duke, and it was opened to the public in 2012 (before that, it was only open for tours). Not only does it have 7 miles of paved trails (plus more miles that are gravel) that go past ruins of the foundation for the grand mansion that was never built, man-made lakes, the one-time horse barn that comes with a clocktower and much more, but it also has a bike-share system!

They have 80 bikes — a mix cruisers (with a few gears), adult tricycles, even bikes for kids. So even if you don’t know how to bike, there’s a solution for you. Cost is $5 for two hours, though they hardly seem to be timing the rental.

Note that although it’s called Duke Farms, it’s not a working farm. Nor is it a traditional garden. It’s certainly a lovely place to ride! You can read my take on it here.

Now to find a route that will let me bike there from home. Perhaps the D&R Canal towpath (and East Coast Greenway segment) for much of the way?

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