Bicycles and Bicycling on the Towpath

Whether you bicycle for fun, fitness or for commuting, the towpath is a great bike and almost the perfect place to ride. It has multiple advantages:

  1. there are no cars, no stop lights or stop signs.
  2. it's flat
  3. it's pretty -- with canal views on one side along almost all of its length and river views on the other in many places.
  4. it's tree-lined almost everywhere, providing protection from the sun and wind.
  5. it's not crowded, i.e., you won't have to manuever to pass another bicyclist. Most of the people you'll see are on foot, walking or, more likely, running. Near the access points, you'll also see fishermen.

How flat is it?

It's really flat. The total change in elevation along the 44 mile length of the historica towpath is about about 40 feet, i.e., there is a slight downhill from Trenton to New Brunswick of ~1 ft/mile. This is definitely not hard-core mountain biking! There are, in fact, a few small hills near the locks and spillways and where bridges, etc. intersect with the towpath, but by-and-large it's flat. It's not straight, however, and the tree-lined towpath is really quite scenic.

What kind of bicycle should I have?

TowpathGuy rides a rigid mountain bike, i.e., no suspension either in front or in the rear, with 1.95" wide tires. He recommends a wide tire but there are plenty of road bikes on the towpath, mountain bikes with full or just front suspension, cycle-cross bikes, hybrid bikes, recumbent bikes and just about every other kind of bicycle that you can imagine. The surface is not paved and is mostly a hard-packed pea gravel or dirt. In the Spring some parts can get pretty soft especially if there is a freeze/thaw cycle sort of weather that often hits NJ at this time of the year. This is about the only time that wider tires are essential, especially if you are a heavier rider. Right now (August, 2008), there's been little rain and the towpath surface is quite firm. Major portions of the towpath, i.e., from Landing Lane to Blackwells Mills Road were resurfaced in the Spring of 2008. This surface is a mixture of sand, pea gravel, and river gravel. For now (Sept., 2008), the river gravel has come to the surface, but the underlying surface if well packed. The D&R Canal Main Office says that there are plans to try to remove the excess river gravel (basically a monolayer of stones) from the surface to reveal the hard-packed layer underneath.

What kind of equipment do I need?

Of course, you should always wear an approved bicycle helmet. In addition, you need some other gear. Access points are limited and there are no facilities on the towpath, so even for short rides you'll need to have water and a tire repair kit, including a pump. (Soon simple instructions on fixing a flat, if you should need to, will be posted at Simple Bicycle Repair.) However, you'll never be longer than a mile or so from the nearest exit, so carry a cell phone and then you can have a friend/family member pick you up if you have a mechanical problem. For longer rides you might want to bring some nourishment. Thus, a backpack is good, but even better is a rear carrier and pack for it, i.e., a small "trunk". The "trunk" is preferable especially in the summer as the backpack blocks your (sweating) back from the cooling air flow generated by your movement. Also, the backpack raises your center-of-mass a bit which some riders don't like. If you commute the trunk is also a good way to carry the change of clothes you'll need when you get to work. Also, if you work late or commute in the late fall, winter or early sping, you'll need a light. The towpath is far enough from the streets and protected enough by trees, canals, rivers, etc. that it's dark, very dark. In the winter, TowpathGuy uses 3 lights, one bright white one (rechargeable) for the front, a red LED light for the rear, and a spare white battery-driven light in case the rechargeable one fails. Some parents attach trailers to the their bikes for younger children.

When Can I Bike on the Tow Path?

Anytime you like! There are 4 seasons in NJ and the towpath is accessible during all of them. There are three weather events that will keep you from your towpath bike rides:

  1. snow -- snow and ice happen. In NJ it's not consistent. Some winters we get nothing and some winters the towpath will be buried under a few or more inches of snow for several to many weeks.
  2. rain -- TowpathGuy does not like to bicycle in the rain, so when it rains hard he stays home. Major thunder and wind storms frequently knock down trees along the towpath. The ones in the bank of the canal and the river seem to have fairly shallow root systems. When they fall, they either go into the canal or across the towpath. It usually takes the park rangers only a few days to come through and clear them.
  3. floods -- the towpath between South Bound Brook and New Brunswick floods. This is not particularly surprising since this stretch runs adjacent to the Raritan River. The most serious flooding occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Both Manville, NJ and Bound Brook, NJ were badly flooded and the towpath from Bound Brook to New Brunswick was under >10 feet of rushing flood waters. The towpath surface that had been quite recently improved was totally washed away. In addition, the eddies created potholes several feet across and deep at irregular intervals along the towpath. Riding remained possible, but care was needed and speeds were slow in places. It took a couple of years before the surface could be restored. Damage to the towpath surface occurs whenever there's a flood. Watch the news for flooding in Bound Brook and more than likely there will be flooding on the towpath.

1 comment:

  1. No better way to spend an entire day than cycling the towpath up to Easton.