|My ride from Frenchtown to Trenton, New Jersey|
Hardy Menagh 6/19/09
In June of 2009, my wife had planned to attend a women's history seminar at the Trenton Old Barracks Museum in New Jersey. I had been collecting some information from the web about the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park Path, a multi-use pathway that runs next to the feeder canal from Frenchtown all the way into downtown Trenton. It sounded like a nice ride and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to try it out. My wife could drop me off at the Frenchtown entry point and I would meet her at the Barracks a few hours later.
The canal path, for the most part, was originally a tow path and later a rail bed and railroad right-of-way. After the railroad was abandoned, the park removed the rails from the areas that are now occupied by the path. Packed sand, dirt and fine gravel now makes up the surface of the pathway.
Preparing for the Ride
From what I'd read on the web, it sounded like a rigid-frame mountain bike would be perfect for the path. I tuned up my Trek 830 Antelope and put on a set of Forté Gotham road tires from Performance Bicycle. The inexpensive Gothams have an aggressive road tread that seemed like it would be perfect for the surface of the path that was described on the web. In the rainy seasons, knobby tires may be a better choice. A dry or wax-based chain lube is also a good idea. Sticky or oily lubes will collect sand.
I estimated that the total distance of the ride would be somewhere between 30 to 35 miles. I packed two water bottles, two Genisoy bars and the usual emergency equipment, consisting of a multi-tool, tire levers, a spare tube, a patch kit and a cell phone. I also included a cable lock, in case I needed to make a restroom stop.
The only bike clothes I own are a helmet, some lined khaki bike shorts, with chamois and a pair of padded fingerless gloves. To complete the ensemble for this trip, I added a light cotton short-sleeve button-front shirt. I could let the shirt-tails fly in the breeze for some fanning action.
After departing from our Upstate New York home and spending the night at a friend's house in Somerville, NJ, My wife drove me to Frenchtown. She dropped me off with the Antelope in the parking area next to the path, then she continued on Route 29 to Trenton. I hit the path.
At the upper end, the path is nearly completely shrouded in a canopy of green. It's like cycling through a large tunnel made of foliage.
The first thing I had to get used to was the sound the tires made on the sandy path. It's an abrasive sound, like your tire tread is being sanded off. You get used to it after a while and console yourself with the fact that, even if you are accelerating the wear of a set of tires, it's worth it.* You are cycling in a serene beautiful environment that's absolutely flat. This was a real luxury for me, coming from doing my daily hour rides in the hilltowns by the Catskill mountains, where flat is something you can only try to imagine.
I shifted for a comfortable cadence that put just the right amount of strain on my legs and found that I could easily maintain 17 MPH. I only had to downshift at the intersections but I could have easily gotten away without shifting at all. As miles passed, I noticed I was going faster than the cyclists I was passing and fearing a breach of unknown etiquette, I slowed down a by few MPH. Even at 14 - 15 MPH, I was not passed by any riders going in my direction.
A few miles down the path, the canopy began to open up in places. My bike computer told me the mileage and there are markers by the path every 1/2 mile at the upper sections of the trail, but there's often no visible way to know where you are otherwise. There are several intersections with roads all along the path. The path has gates at these points, to keep motorized vehicles out. Cyclists must navigate around the gates, sometimes passing between two posts that allow only minimal clearance on each side. Street names aren't identified at the path but you can easily turn onto the roads to get your bearings or to find a restroom, before returning to the path. I chose to stay on the path and not worry about my exact location. There would be landmarks along the way, to offer clues.
The path is used by joggers, walkers, horseback riders and cyclists alone and in groups. Typically, I'm used to riding alone on rural roads. The canal path is one of the rare situations where I have actually found a use for a bell. Sometimes even giving ample warning with a bell and a loud, "On your Left", didn't always alert pedestrians to my presence, especially if their ears were compromised with iPod buds. Still, I only had to hit the brakes hard once, when a dog on a long leash darted across my path stringing an instant trip line from his owners hand. The only other hazard I encountered, was a fly fisherman repeatedly casting the line behind him onto the trail, also seemingly oblivious to my bell. He had clearly gotten the right rhythm and wasn't going to pause for anyone. I had to time my passage carefully.
The path crosses the canal in places and for a while you have the canal on one side of the path and the Delaware River on the other. Canada Geese are ever-present, in and out of the water. I also passed Blue Herons, ducks, groundhogs and Snapping Turtles (on and off the trail). I was told by a friend that he had spotted Mute Swans in the canal recently, near Lambertville but they weren't visible in the parts of the canal that I could see.
An Unplanned Detour
It could have been that I was enjoying the scenery a little too much and missed the marker, but somehow I ended up off the designated path on the wrong side of the canal. My first clue was that the path had changed drastically. It had become two car tire tracks on semi-embedded coarse gravel and dirt, overgrown with grass. Water-filled depressions were abundant. There were steel rails next to the path and even an old graffiti-covered baggage car. I glanced across the canal and saw the familiar groomed sandy path. Although there were no pedestrians or cyclists here, there were bike tire tracks in the dirt and mud, so I kept going until the trail ended at a run-down old industrial-looking area. I was truly on the wrong side of the tracks now. I traversed the aging broken pavement, trying my best to look like I knew where I was going. Shortly thereafter, I found a bridge to the other side of the canal. I rejoined the path and continued on.
After 22 miles, somewhere near Washington's Crossing, I stopped at a picnic area, to reattach my helmet mirror, which had fallen off shortly after Frenchtown. The mirror wasn't really needed on the path but I was getting closer to a point where I would have to mingle with city traffic. While I waited for the patch cement to dry, I ate a Genisoy bar (Chunky Peanut Butter Fudge)† and relaxed. 15 minutes later, I was back on the path and headed toward Trenton with my rear vision restored.
I passed a golf course and knew I was riding through the Trenton Country Club.
The closer I got to the downtown area, the more the quality of the path changed. Large partially-embedded chunky gravel was more common now and there was some litter on the path and floating in the canal. I hadn't seen another cyclist for a few miles.
Now the scenery changed suddenly. I was definitely in the city. I went under some low overpasses with more litter and some broken glass and then the trail turned into very loose coarse gravel. I moved over onto the grass. Without any fanfare, the path T-intersected with a street where it ended abruptly.
I crossed the street and found an out-of-the-way place on the sidewalk where I could consult the MapQuest maps I had printed. I was at N. Willow and Chauncy St. I had overshot the point where I wanted to get off the path at Capitol St., but Barrack St. and the Trenton Barracks were still just a few blocks away in a straight line. A couple of traffic lights later, I rolled into the Barracks, perhaps not quite as victoriously as General Washington on the morning after Christmas, in 1776, but still quite satisfied, nonetheless.
If you live by the computer, the total distance from Frenchtown to the Barracks by the route I took is 30.5 miles. My actual ride time, not including a 15 minute break, was 2 hours and 15 minutes. My average speed was 13.6 MPH. My maximum speed was 19.7 MPH. I did not measure the exact circumference of my tires before setting the computer. I used the standard 2045 mm for a 26 x 1.75 tire. Your results may, of course, vary.
*My post ride bike inspection, showed absolutely no unusual tire wear.
†No, I'm not affiliated with Genisoy but I'm a vegetarian and Genisoy is the only almost-palatable nutrition/energy bar I can find that doesn't contain fish. The company does however, process fish products in the plant that makes the bars. They also use unhealthy cheap tropical oils, as do the others. I use nutrition/energy bars so infrequently that it hardly matters.
Copyright © 2009 Hardy Menagh