Experimental Solo Bike Tour, Day 4
Gettysburg to Antietam Creek
50 miles, 2200 feet of climbing
One thing that has disconcerted me a little about this bike tour: it takes me an age to get all my gear packed up and ready to go. I start getting myself organized, and then time abruptly compresses and suddenly it is an hour and a half later, 45 minutes after I was intending to leave. I’m mostly at a loss to explain this. I’m not sitting down and taking nap breaks although that is what the results would seem to indicate. Furthermore I don’t have that much stuff! The only thing I can put this down to is that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of stuff you are carrying and the time necessary for packing. When car camping, which is what I do mostly, you can shovel all your shit into the capacious maw of your vehicle, even if it isn’t perfectly packed, confident that you can roll to your next destination and sort it all out at the end. But on a bike, although you have less stuff, it more or less has to be disassembled and then packed in the same order. Practice should make perfect.
Except that today I was back in time dilation land, and as a result leaving much later in the morning than I had intended. Somehow, once I’ve dropped into slow down mode, it is hard to transition into a hurry-up mentality once again.
I said good bye to Lee and Barbara, who last night acquired new neighbours, a couple pulling a windowless cargo trailer that they had converted into a camping trailer. They had with them a Harley, but it wasn’t clear if it had been packed inside the trailer or if one of them had ridden it separately. This morning, their camping arrangement offered up one of those strange sights that you sometimes get when the self-image of US citizens as adventurous outdoorsy go-getters collides head-on with the reality of their dependency on an (over?) developed communications infrastructure. As I pushed my bike across the gravel I noticed both of them sitting on their picnic table, underneath a canvas shelter, peering intently into the gloom of their trailer’s interior, at a large flat-screen TV that was playing Good Morning America.
I clipped in and pedaled out to the entrance, past the long line of RVs, silent like so many mothballed battleships. One reason I really don’t like staying at places that accommodate the truly massive land yachts as opposed to the more moderate sized campervans, is that they suck the life out of a campground. The smaller your accommodations, the more time you spend outside. So I like walking around a campground and seeing people cooking at their tables, sitting in front of a fire, talking; you wave, and they generally wave back. I had ridden back and forth past the line of RVs and almost never saw anyone outside. Vague shadows were sometimes glimpsed moving around inside, but sometimes even that was difficult because of the blinds drawn over the windows. When you have an air-conditioned house on wheels, why would you go outside? Of course, this also raises the question: why would you ever go anywhere if you don’t want to actually interact with the places you go to, but by this point locking yourself away inside some oversized form of accommodation seems to be as American as Velveeta.
I knew the first part of the day would be hard because it meant going back over the range of mountains I’d climbed a couple of days ago. One thing I’d decided to do, since this was an experiment, was to test out how well Google Maps works for bikes (now I’m sure that as soon as I said that, there will be a host of more experienced cyclists who will just have rocked back in their chairs, roaring with laughter, and slapping their thighs. There may even be tears. There certainly were from me). It routed me up over what looked like a decent climb but one that would set up a reasonably flat run into Sharpsburg. I was, however, climbing right from the start, even before I reached the start of the official climb along Gum Springs Road. This started out as a relentless uphill grind, but at a manageable grade that meant I could patiently spin my way along. Which would have been awesome except that the road had just been freshly chipsealed for the better part of 5 miles. Finally, the chipseal ended, the road got a little rougher, and then I realized the bike was beginning to wallow on the road.
Sure enough, I’d developed a slow leak. But, since I was just hitting what seemed to be the steepest part of the climb I took it as a sign from the gods that I should get off the bike and take a break. Fixing a flat on a touring bike is not easy and quick since you have to pull pretty much everything off the bike (because of course it was the rear tire). However, I remained calm, took the opportunity to grab a bite to eat, made sure I patiently checked the tire for any traces of what had caused the leak and, finding none, put everything back together with a new tube. Of course, it is always difficult to shake that lingering worry in the back of your mind: flats often come in bunches. You thought you checked the tire carefully, but did you? What did you miss?
The road steepened, and then it got really steep, the first time I’d had to use the granny gear for a sustained effort. But eventually everything started to go downhill. Unfortunately that was metaphorically true as well as literally.
The Evil that Men Do
Google Maps on this ride was an abysmal failure. In fact it failed repeatedly and in several different ways. The person who designed the bike-routing algorithm for Google should be made to ride several of his or her routes with only a pointy stick for a bike seat.
After giving it some thought I honestly have no idea what the nature of that algorithm actually is. Google Maps gives you virtually no options for customizing the route (the only option I’ve ever seen is to indicate whether or not you want to avoid ferries). Therefore the operative assumption seems to be that all cyclists are essentially in the same physical condition, doing the same kind of riding on the same kind of bikes and want to take the same kind of route. What this demonstrates, of course, is that the “bike” algorithm is simply Google’s standard car-mapping algorithm hastily and ineptly modified for cyclists. When you are driving a car to get somewhere, even a long way away from your starting point, the kind of car you are driving really doesn’t make much difference. You have the option of taking that route slowly to sight-see, or driving like a demon.
Consider, in contrast, the world of cyclists. What someone out for a Sunday ramble wants is likely to be very different from someone out for a group hammerfest or a solo training ride. What each of those groups wants is likely to differ again from someone riding a road bike on tour, which will differ yet again from someone riding an off-road capable touring bike. Then there is the disposition of riders: some people hate hills, others don’t mind them. Too Google, apparently, all of this variety is irrelevant. The chief routing assumption seems to be that cyclists want to minimize climbing.
But if there is one thing that unites virtually every cyclist that I know it is that they want to minimize death.
So, just after cresting the climb, Google dumped me out onto Route 16 which became the most terrifying three miles of my life. At first I actually turned up the road the other way thinking that this couldn’t possibly be what was intended. Route 16 was a blisteringly fast downhill all the way into Rouzerville which would have been awesome and a just reward for all my previous suffering except. . .it was filled with huge commercial trucks doing 80 down the hill and locals in pickups that were almost as big as the commercial rigs trying to break the sound barrier. There was a good wide shoulder, except that running right down the center was one of those trenched, ridged corrugations designed to wake up the drivers of aforementioned rigs when they drift off to sleep. So a road designer had decided to put that “safety” feature right down the middle of the shoulder. This meant that I could ride on the left of it, basically in the lane with the trucks. Or I could ride to the right, on the 12 inches of asphalt that remained. When it wasn’t covered in debris. Or squeezed by a guardrail. Or cut off by an avalanche fence. I tried to ride with a simultaneous fierce concentration and relaxed body. I think somewhere on the downhill I was screaming.
Those who have ridden with me know that I am not easily freaked out but when I reached Rouzerville I had to stop to grab something to eat and drink just to recover my nerve. The next stretch of road was a lot quieter and featured a broad shoulder mercifully absent the judder bars. It was, however, filled instead with gravel and stones. This is one of the maddening things about biking in the US: you come across all these places that are physically suitable for biking in terms of road layout and terrain, but it is pretty clear that no one has given any thought to what it would be like to actually bike on them (one of the worst roads I tackled today had signs indicating that it was part of a designated bike route). As a taxpayer who is also a cyclist, I am continually amazed at how little value I get as a cyclist from my taxes.
By this time it was getting hot. Then really hot, back up into the mid-90s. I was making the usual compliment of small errors, stopping to check where I was more than I would have liked as I went through some more built-up areas, so I didn’t need any external assistance in messing up my navigation.
Which was when Google Maps tried to take me through a prison. And to do it with the most vague set of directions I have ever seen on Google Maps, something like “Circle around here until you find X. . .or until you are shot dead.” Now there may well have been a way through the prison complex, but it was pretty clear from the looks I was getting that most people were convinced that it was a bad idea for me to be there and I tended to agree. More map consultation and improvisation.
By this time it was much later in the day than I had intended, I wasn’t going to get any time to explore Antietam like I had wanted since I would need to push on and make camp, I was hot and I was pissed off. Fortunately, I was also recognizing all that, so when I came to a market at an intersection I took a chill break. The place had everything I needed: soft drinks, ice cream, and shade. Refreshed, I got back on my bike.
To find that Google had apparently decided to go the other way this time. Instead of routing me down Sharpsburg Pike, which, although being heavily trafficked is very gentle and has a massive and well-maintained shoulder, Google Maps sent me over hill and dale, culminating in two miles of washboarded gravel up Smoketown Road. By the time I reached the Battlefield Market near Sharpsburg I was too mentally drained even to feel fucked off any more.
So, in one sense, the experiment was a success: Google Maps, as a bike application you suck.
Now there are a couple of important qualifiers. Had I put a lot more planning time into this trip than in fact I was able to do, then I would have pored over maps, read local blogs, researched portions of routes on Strava, and Ride with GPS, and e-mailed wise gurus high in the Andes for their input, all of which I would have used to double-check Google’s suggested route. There does, for example, seem to have been a much safer, although more hilly, alternative to Google’s attempt to kill me by trucking me to death. But that is part of the point of this kind of application: I shouldn’t have to do all that. When you use Google Maps for a car journey do you expect to have to spend hours double-checking the route to make sure that they haven’t sent you through the middle of a river or routed you into the middle of a Marine firing range? No, you don’t.
Isn’t this all part of the adventure of cycling? Well, in a cosmic sense, yes. But on the human level there is adventure (much of which often results from your own ineptitude) versus being victimized by the ineptitude of others. This was already an “adventurous” day, between the early climbing, the heat, and the fact–which I haven’t yet mentioned–of a stiff blustery headwind for virtually the entire final 35 miles.
It is pretty clear, nonetheless, that it would be a very good idea for Google to remove the bike navigation option from their Google Maps application, because when it comes to cycle routing they don’t have a fucking clue.
Maybe if they were genuinely concerned about not doing evil (I know, I know, no one takes that pledge of theirs seriously anymore, especially after their China escapade) they would spend a little less time thinking like a car driver.
Mercifully, the final few miles were downhill to the Potomoac (which made me think of Hill’s men having to march up those roads at speed to arrive in the nick of time at the Battle of Sharpsburg). Camp for the night was Antietam Creek campground, right next to the C&O and about half a mile west of its namesake. The C&O canal has small primitive campgrounds roughly every five miles, but this is a much larger facility, offering many individual sites and several group sites, running in a long ribbon next to the trail. In fact, the campground is so long that when I made what was, I thought, the smart selection of a site reasonably near the toilets, I ended up having to get on my bike, and carry all my water bottles a quarter of a mile further up the trail to where the campground’s pump was located.
The disadvantage of being located near a creek is heightened exposure to Virginia’s insect population, most of which resembles creatures from Jurassic Park. This is no place for your “environmentally-friendly” Infusion of Daffodil repellents (besides, if you were really concerned with being “environmentally friendly” you would let nature takes its course and allow the creatures to eat you). Nope, 100% DEET, or else you wake up in the morning to find yourself sucked dry (and not in the nice Twilight way either).
It was nevertheless relaxing to sit beside a Potomac whose surface was alive with bugs and watch the light gradually fade.
Hot food, coffee, and a beautiful sunset is all you need to expunge memories of a bad day at the hands of Brin and Page and to hope for a better day tomorrow.