Approximately 70% of Ohio's first cross-state trail is finished along its northern route. When the Ohio-to-Erie Trail project was first announced, completion was set for the end of 2003. Since those early estimates completion continues to be pushed back as the scope of this huge project becomes reality. Construction along the trail is progressing steadily, but projections (at the time of this writing) are that the trail will not be finished until 2010.
Why ride the trail before it's finished? Well, being familiar with many of the trails that make up the Ohio-to-Erie, I knew that large portions of the bikeway had been completed. I wanted to witness the construction progress firsthand and see if the connecting road routes between completed sections were bike friendly. Also, I suspected that others might be itching to ride the trail and hoped to provide them with some useful pointers.
Riding a cross-state trail, such as the Ohio-to-Erie, is more of a bike tour than a simple trail ride. Starting in Cincinnati along the Ohio River, the trail extends northeast through Columbus and eventually on to Lake Erie in Cleveland. This stretch of roughly 325 or so miles -- by way of the shortest route -- requires a multi-day effort. I wanted to allow myself enough time to enjoy the trip without dawdling and taking a week to complete the ride. So, I decided to break the distance down into a four day tour. I would start in Cincinnati and head northeast hoping to take advantage of the prevailing winds (that was the plan, anyway).
I would load up the road bike for Days 1 & 2. I would start by pedaling from Cincy to London, Ohio. Day two I'd trek on to Mt. Vernon where I'd switch to mountain bike for the third leg to Massillon, Ohio. I decided to mountain bike through the Mohican Valley and Holmes County Trails where the going is too rough for skinny tires. I'd stay on the mountain bike on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath where the crushed stone surface can be managed with a road bike, but is much more enjoyable on a fat-tire machine. The final day would be the shortest from Massillon to Lake Erie at Cleveland.
To appreciate the scope of this ride one needs a good map. This map gives a good overview, although the actual route has changed a bit as the trail has evolved through its construction. For current trail news and construction progress, check out the Ohio-to-Erie web site.
I admit that I naively expected an enjoyable 4-day tour along predominately flat, smooth terrain in good weather; a pleasant bike vacation so to speak. So much for expectations!
My tour began on July 16, 2004.
Cincinnati to London - 10:15 am
I started off from a parking lot along Kellogg Avenue (Rt. 52) near Wilmer Avenue in Cincinnati, across from Lunken Field and just out of sight of the Ohio River. I wanted to dunk my rear wheel in the river (to appease the touring tradition gods, of course), but after my lengthy road trip to Cincinnati I was more interested in getting underway than scoping out a safe route to pedal down to the water's edge. When the riverfront portion of the trail is completed the bikeway will continue along the river further into the heart of Cincinnati and cross over into Kentucky as well.
I made my way northeast along Wilmer Avenue and quickly came to Lunken Field at .2 miles into the ride. I jumped onto the Lunken Playfield Trail that parallels Wilmer and rode it about 1.1 miles to Playfield Lane where I rejoined Wilmer and headed toward Rts. 32 & 125. If you continue on the Lunken Trail you can finish the loop by circling the field, a distance of about 5 miles. Ohio-to-Erie plans will incorporate more of the loop allowing users to avoid some of the road riding described here.
At the Rt. 32 & 125 junction I turned right and briefly headed southeast across the bridge. This 4-lane stretch wasn't busy when I pedaled through about 10:30 on a Friday morning, though I imagine it can be quite different during rush hour. I exited and followed Rt. 32 as it again turned northeast becoming Batvia Road.
Riding into Newtown I focused on the traffic and not getting lost. Traffic was mostly light with pockets of heavier traffic at some intersections. I pulled over to check my map as Batvia Rd became Main Street. Then I rejoined the carbon dioxide set and made a left on Church Street to jump over to Rt. 52 east. I rode through some light construction here before turning right on Rt. 52.
As the traffic began to thin out I relaxed along the wide, sweeping 4-lane road as it turned northeastward taking me toward Milford, Ohio. I spotted major construction to my right along the east side of the road. A large swath of earth had been bulldozed. It looked like road construction. I pulled off to have a look and soon realized that it is most likely part of the new trail construction between Milford and Lunken Field. I snapped a few photos and continued on toward Milford on Wooster Pike (Rt. 50).
Riding into Milford I felt a sense of excitement as I approached the Little Miami Trailhead. I was about to hook into a trail system that would guide me along some 80 continuous miles of paved, flat trail all the way to London, Ohio! The Little Miami, along with the Prairie Grass Trail that now extends eastward to London, currently comprise the largest completed section of the Ohio-to-Erie.
In Milford I turned left (north) on Rt. 126 and made an immediate left up the short hill to the trailhead parking lot. If you blink you may miss the entrance. I believe there is a small trail sign near the base of the hill now, but you have to look closely to find it.
I have a low tolerance for riding in moderate to heavy traffic, so I'm pleased to say that the 9-mile road route between Lunken Field and Milford wasn't bad. But I wouldn't try it during rush hour.
I took a short break at the trailhead. I noticed it was quite warm and moved into the shade and checked my odometer. Only 10.5 miles into my journey and already an hour had passed. Wow. I quickly learned how much touring differs from simple day trips. I only stopped to check my maps a couple of times and to have a quick look at the trail construction, yet almost an hour had passed and I hadn't gone 11 miles! I was carrying extra weight in the form of a good-sized seat bag and a small handle bar bag. My average speed wasn't suffering much on the easy terrain, but finding your way along unfamiliar routes can be very time consuming. But I wasn't concerned at this point. My navigation skills would not be needed for the remainder of the day as the trail would be my "yellow brick road" all the way to London.
For me, riding the Little Miami Trail is like visiting an old friend: a comfortable encounter that always puts a smile on my face. The south end of the trail welcomed me back by jostling me a bit with an occasional bump or two of uneven trail surface. The small creek and run-off bridge decks are still archaic and rough and have prompted a small, official-looking "Uneven Surface" sign made in miniature.
I cruised northward on the trail ramping up my speed now and then to make up for lost time. Unfortunately this can lead you to focus on covering ground quickly, rather than enjoying your ride. And since enjoyment was one of my main objectives, well, I wasn't off to a great start.
I'll interject here that I learned a few touring lessons on this journey that I will gladly pass along. Lesson #1: When you have a lot of miles to cover, always start your ride early. I had plenty of time to reach my destination in London, but the feeling of being behind schedule is a distracting thing that's to be avoided whenever possible.
At the 19.8 mile mark I rolled into Loveland with a rear flat. I moved into the shade, removed my seat bag and some snacks and set about installing a spare tube. An elderly gentleman stopped his road bike to ask if I needed help. He stayed to chat a while and keep me company. It's much easier to find help or someone to chat with along the trail than when riding solo on the road. Nice.
The heat was getting more intense, but wasn't noticeable until I stopped moving. I remounted my gear and stopped at the trail restroom to refill my water bottles to stay hydrated. One of the many pleasures of the Little Miami is that amenities are right along the trail.
I glanced at my watch before leaving Loveland. 12:45 pm. It was going on 1 o'clock and I'd only covered about 20 miles and hadn't had lunch yet. And this was going to be one hot summer afternoon. Hmmm. Lesson #2: Never forget lesson #1.
Riding along the Little Miami has become a regular trek for me, something I try to do about once a year. So I was in familiar territory as I cruised northward along the Great Miami River. I tried to focus on my surroundings as I pedaled past campgrounds along the wooded riverbank. The shade helped with the warm temps, but my awareness of "miles to go" was tugging at me. So I alternated between keeping a steady pace and pushing a bit more. This would be a pattern that would repeat unmercifully for the rest of the day.
Approx. 2:20 pm
I stopped at the Corwin Peddler for lunch and tried to relax. The Ice Cream and sandwich shop caters to cyclists. They have bike racks, indoor & outdoor seating, a cold jug of water and a trail restroom as close as a detached garage -- yeah! I felt better as the miles began to tick off with no trouble since my Loveland flat. I eased back onto the trail at 3 pm and finally settled into a comfortable rhythm.
I enjoyed a few miles of slowly warming back up to a steady pace, taking in the natural settings all around. Just south of Xenia I happened to look up and see my tormentor for the first time. He was lying black and ominous along the horizon ahead, moving swiftly to cut off my projected route. Hey, they weren't forecasting any rain for today -- #@!! A little voice inside my head taunted, "Welcome to bicycle touring!"
Late day thunderstorms are no stranger to Ohio in July, but I was mentally unprepared by the favorable forecast that morning. I put my head down and began to hammer. Maybe I could skirt by before it hits me, I thought. But within a mile I realized that it was moving too fast. In fact, it looked like it would make Xenia before I arrived so I slowed down to give it time to pass through. Maybe it would scoot through and I could ride in behind it. Yeah, that's it.
As I rode into the outskirts of Xenia the sky had lightened, but there was a strong smell of fish in the air. Fish? Then I saw it ahead. Soaked pavement. Not merely wet or damp. Completely drenched. I slowed further as I approached the waterline. My tires made contact and began forcefully spewing water. I slowed again and started weaving along the trail surface seeking out the high spots where water drains first. Basically I was puddle-jumping on a trail that ponds few puddles. Lesson #3: Don't rely heavily on the weather forecast.
I continued to zigzag along the trail with the spray drenching the bike and me from the waist down. I putzed along at 11-12 mph to reduce the spray, but my tactic was more psychological than physical -- I was already soaked.
The trail began to drain and dry and just before Xenia Station it was dry once more. I pulled up to the depot, the muddy spray already dried on the bike, and me mostly dry except for a squishy chamois. About 30 miles yet to go. Are we having fun yet?
I settled into my new routine of filling water bottles with some powdered gatorade. This was my solution to how I could consume sports drinks on my trip without toting a bunch of extra weight. It worked ok, but I don't care for the taste of the gatorade powder much. Maybe I got a bad can.
I glanced at the trail signs when I left the parking lot and saw they'd been improved. Rather than the simple number system that was previously used, the signs now included the distances to the next town for each trail -- hey! Newcomers will be thankful. If you haven't visited the trail hub at the Xenia Station, four (soon to be five) trail segments converge there. It's the largest trail hub of its kind in Ohio.
By this time I was a bit road... er, trail-weary with only about an hour of sleep under my belt from the night before. Lesson #4: Lay out all your gear well in advance of your tour. And check out fit and functionality too. That way you only have to pack the stuff right before you leave. You won't be messing with what to take and how much it all weighs...
After a quick wash up at Xenia Station I was back on the trail. I turned eastward now to take the Prairie Grass Trail toward South Charleston, all part of the Ohio-to-Erie experience. The rain had passed and the trail was mostly flat and straight. I resigned myself to the fact that the storm cost me yet more time. I settled into a good pace and hoped the remainder of the day would be calm and relaxing.
I tooled past Cedarville and missed seeing the new Inn they say is close to the trail there. I must admit that I was getting into the "let's finish this ride" mode. Exploring was not on the agenda. As I crossed Barber Road, the former endpoint of the trail that's just east of Massie Creek Park, I headed onto a new trail section I had never ridden. Like other small trail segments along the route, the Cedarville Trail will most likely lose its name to the greater expanse of the Ohio-to-Erie that's now absorbed it.
For a few miles I searched for a good photo op and mused over how to describe this predominately straight stretch for an upcoming trail review. But my attention was distracted by the wind as it started jostling grasses and light debris around me. I looked back over my shoulder toward Xenia on the horizon. A large black cloud loomed once again over the town. The wind mostly at my back, I quickly surmised that I was being hunted down. A few periodic checks confirmed the black cloud was in hot pursuit. Ok, here we go again. Head down I accelerated for all I was worth. I'd rather try to race away from a storm than ride through it any day.
The scenery blurred as my sole focus became outrunning Mother Nature. The battle waged for several miles as the air would cool and whip up with taunting sprinkles, only to die down again and warm noticeably. I was riding the edge, surfing the tip when I started to lose power. I was gassed. Defeated. I slowed and looked back helplessly at my protagonist. My eyes opened wider. The cloud had turned away from me to harass other territories. I coasted down to a crawl while trying to catch my breath and shaking my head. What the hell was I doing? This trip was supposed to be relaxing and enjoyable. I'm not sure I was getting the spirit of this whole touring thing.
For perhaps the third time that day, I readjusted my focus and checked my attitude. I looked down the straight trail to my next destination, South Charleston. The skies ahead looked partly cloudy and friendly, but not for long. In what seemed a ridiculously short period of time, I looked up again to see a gathering black cloud. I'll admit now that it took me too long to realize that I was blessed with what some folks refer to as "popcorn" thunderstorms that day. The type of storms that can materialize or pop-up out of nowhere. On a day when virtually no chance of rain was forecast they'd decided to come out and play.
The cloud over South Charleston kept growing bigger so naturally I picked up the pace again and speeded toward it. Why? Who really knows? Something about trying to reduce the time spent riding through the rain... on one hour of sleep rationalizations fly like leaves in the wind.
I rode into a steady drizzle as the trail ahead turned from black sky to gray everything. I humbly pulled over to don my rain jacket (it may have only been a wind jacket, but hey, I'm new to touring). I slogged on at a steady, irritable pace making my way into town.
The drizzle turned to steady rain and I welcomed a break when I reached the old train depot on the west end of town. I pulled under the large overhang, planted myself on a bench and took out some snacks. I took my time consulting my maps to see where the trail picked up again and hoped the rain would pass. I had no luck with either.
I stopped a passing police car to get directions, then when the rain slowed again to drizzle, headed east on Mound Street a few blocks, turned right and then left over one block to Church Street where the trail picks up again. After logging 81.9 miles I knew that I was in the home stretch as I set my sights on London, Ohio.
Despite some rain, the ride into London was uneventful. As I rolled to the trail's current endpoint at Midway Street, I pulled off my hood and unzipped my jacket. I had ridden about 20 miles of new trail and had noticed very little of it. I just wanted to reach my destination of Alexandra's Bed & Breakfast on Main Street, about a mile from the trailhead. I pulled into the drive, toweled my bike off and stowed it away for the night. I checked in at 6:45 pm with my overnight bag (seat bag), grabbed a shower and a well deserved nap.
Since I was familiar with most of the existing trails on this journey, I did have some expectations for each leg. For Day 1 I anticipated a long, easy day in the saddle. Relaxed riding on flat, picturesque trails with no need for maps or fussing about. After completing this first leg with little sleep, one flat and far too many rounds of sparring with Mother Nature, I was just happy to have made it.
Day 1 Stats:
Total Miles = 93.14 Trail Miles= 82.16 Road Miles= 10.98