It’s a cycling tour with history. Or a history tour via bicycle.
Throw in advocacy for parks and trails along with a case study in landscape and community and you have the beginnings to describe the weeklong Cycle the Erie Canal event.
The 17th edition, which follows (for the most part) the Erie Canal from Buffalo to Albany, begins Sunday with a ceremonial send-off at 8 a.m. at Nichols School. The public is welcome to attend.
More than 500 cyclists will participate in the eight-day journey, with four-day and two-day options available, as well.
The 400-mile journey combines fitness and history and showcases the best of what New York State has to offer.
Organized by Parks & Trails New York, an advocacy organization founded in 1985, the trip provides riders with breakfast and most dinners along with water and snack stops during the day. There also are informative lectures about the Erie Canal including the political, economic and cultural impact the project had on local areas.
Each rider has freedom during the day to explore towns along the route. It’s not a race. There are no timing chips. Prizes at the end of the ride are awarded for categories like “most flat tires during the week.” Riders come from across the United States, with some international participants, and range in age from 9 to 90.
As a participant in 2014, the week featured fitness challenges, visits to small towns and big cities and plenty of interesting New York history. On the 400.3 miles cycled (according to my trusty Garmin) my friend and I made six ice cream stops, visited four canal museums and two breweries. I sent 11 postcards to my niece, suffered two crashes and amazingly had zero flat tires.
The average of 50 miles per day means plenty of time in the saddle, but the experience of seeing New York State – from small towns like Albion which brought out all the bells and whistles to welcome the riders to town to navigating city streets in Rochester and Syracuse – created an entirely different connection to this fitness adventure.
People are proud of their towns. As the tour made its way along the canal, we were greeted in many places by town volunteers. They washed our bikes. Gave us water. Baked us cookies. They were eager to talk about their towns and show you the best they had to offer. And if you don’t think a place like Albion or Clyde has anything to offer, you haven’t taken the time to look and listen.
People have amazing stories to share: On the trail in Manlius we came upon an unofficial rest stop. “Water and popsicles!” they yelled. They had me at popsicles. We pulled over into the Bryan M. Place Memorial where Bryan’s mother and family greeted cyclists. Place, we learned, used to train on these trails all the time. Bryan was a runner in high school and in college for Connecticut. He loved to help people and give back to his community. He died of an aortic aneurysm in 2010. The family felt one way to honor his memory was to support the riders in this event. One of the other cyclists tried to give her some money. Bryan’s mother refused. “Give it to the charity of your choice in your hometown,” she said. “That’s what Bryan would have wanted.”
New York State is beautiful. There is a special sense of peace which comes from old forests mixing with waterways. There are farmlands and cobblestone buildings and fortified 18th century homes. There are fields of wildflowers and plots of sweet summer corn. There is even beauty in the industrial infrastructure, if you look at it with the right frame of mind.
There is a way to quantify the impact of fitness on a community: Local residents can enjoy the Erie Canalway Trail, but overnight visitors along the trail are growing and have a considerable economic impact on the communities they visit. In a 2014 study, trail traffic volume was estimated at 1.6 million visits per year generating $253 million in sales and more than 3,400 jobs.