Hitting the Buffalo to Albany Bike Tour
By Mary Beth Roach
When Dan Benedict, at the age of 85, asked his daughter Rachel Doan to go for a bike ride last summer, it wasn’t your typical Sunday ride in the park.
It was the 10th annual 400-mile, eight-day bicycle ride called “Cycling the Erie Canal,” sponsored by Parks & Trails New York.
Approximately 570 cyclists embarked on this historic and scenic tour in 2008 from Buffalo to Albany, traveling along sections of the canal’s towpath, the original Erie Canal, and the Seneca and Mohawk Rivers, and through such towns and cities as Buffalo, Lockport, Medina, Rochester, Pittsford, Waterloo, Seneca Falls, Camillus, Syracuse, Chittenango, Little Falls, Canajoharie, Scotia and, finally, Albany.
A resident of the community of Marbletown in the Catskill area, Dan said he had seen the riders in previous tours traveling through nearby Newark, and thought it would be interesting to take part. He invited Rachel, a biking enthusiast herself and one of Dan’s eight children, to join him.
Rachel, 52 at the time of the ride, was encouraged by her husband, Alan, to spend some quality time with her dad. She signed on.
For Joan Gardner, then 57, of Dewitt, it was her third tour, and it was to be the second one she did with husband, Bob, also 57 at the time. However, several days before the start of the tour, Bob decided he needed to stay home to tend to some medical concerns of his parents.
“In January [of ’08], I made a personal commitment to bike the canal in 2008 — after all, it was the 10th anniversary and I thought it would be a great T-shirt!,” Joan joked.
Joan’s first ride was in 2003. She and her then-Girl Scout co-leader, Anne Acevedo, also of Dewitt, had wanted to find a safe and healthy adventure for their Cadet troop, which included Joan’s daughter, Lindsay. When Joan had heard about the tour, she convinced Anne to try it to see if it was doable.
They not only found it doable, but a lot of fun.
“We laughed so hard and enjoyed the ride so much, that our husbands refused to be left behind,” she said. So both couples and three girls from Jamesville Dewitt High School Cadet Troop 47 joined in the 2004 tour.
Because the Gardners live close to the Dewitt branch of the Erie Canal, they were able to do their training right along the path, biking several days a week to Chittenango, where they would stop for ice cream, before heading back to Dewitt. As for the ice cream — you have to have an incentive, Joan chuckled.
Whatever the incentive, the scouts, the co-leaders and the husbands all completed the tour.
Training for the 2008 tour had Bob and Joan back on the canal path, heading to Chittenango, but this time, Joan laughed, it was for breakfast.
But shifting gears . . .
“It’s an incredible experience that takes weeks, months of preparation to be able to bike 400 miles in eight days,” she said.
She joined Curves for two months and got a jump start on strengthening her legs and heart. She also used a stationary bike at home and enrolled in a 10-week running program that enabled her to improve her cycling pace. Bob was an active member of the YMCA and worked out three times a week, riding the stationary bike.
Training was a little different for Dan and Rachel.
The oldest cyclist on the tour in 2008, Dan rides nearly every day, doing what his daughter calls a “country block” — nearly four miles, but Rachel had to begin her training in earnest.
“By the time we decided to do this, it was the tail end of May,” Rachel said. “I started to crunch miles after work.” The hilly terrain near Rachel’s home in Penn Yan helped in her training.
In getting ready for the 400-mile tour, Ride Director Al Hastings said, “The simplistic answer is to spend time on the bike. You should be able to ride 50 miles fairly comfortably prior to coming. Coming prepared to ride makes the event much more enjoyable and enables you to focus on things other than how uncomfortable you are.
The hardest part in the training is the sitting because your backside goes numb, Joan said. “No matter what, you’re going to hurt the first day,” said Bob, adding however, that by the second day, you’re doing better.
To assist riders in their preparation, the Parks & Trails New York’s Web site, www.ptny.org, has a detailed handbook, including a basic training schedule, advice on how to ready the bike, suggestions on how to pack, and information on overnight accommodations. Race staff also suggests the Adventure Cycling Web site, www.adventurecycling.org for more information.
The fee for the eight-day ride for adults is $525, but various ride options at different prices are available.
The deadline is June 20, after which there is an additional $50 fee.
Various facilities along the route provide green spaces for temporary camping areas called “tent cities,” for example, high school and college fields, Burnet Park in Syracuse, and Fort Stanwix National Park in Rome. Cyclists have the option of staying at nearby motels. Tractor-trailers carry much of the riders’ gear tents, sleeping bags, clothing from camp to camp, and volunteers at each “tent city” unload the trucks. The cyclists are treated to a hearty breakfast and dinner each day. Technical assistance is provided along the route, and each evening after dinner, the cyclists can visit attractions at the nearby towns or stay at the camp to enjoy the musical entertainment or guest speakers that the tour organizers arrange.
But it’s not all about pedaling. The tour included visits to various museums along the route, such as the Women’s Rights National Historic Site in Seneca Falls; and Fort Stanwix and the Erie Canal Museum and Village in Rome, where the cyclists enjoyed a ride on a horse-drawn packet boat along a section of the canal, reminiscent of water travel in the early 19th century.
“The whole thing is impressive,” Bob said. “It’s the little things that you enjoy.”
Although, Bob didn’t enjoy changing five flat tires along the way. His advice — make sure to have one or two spares and some fundamental tools and travel with somebody who knows how to change a tire.
Biking for the Benedicts and the Gardners has been a family affair for years.
The Gardners began biking as a family when Lindsay turned 10. She is now a sophomore at the University of Rochester. Over the years, they’ve been to the Rideau Canal in Ottawa and Harper’s Ferry in Virginia, and together with Anne and Russ Acevedo, the family did the Five Boro Bike Tour in New York City with 30,000-plus other cyclists in 2005.
The Benedict family‘s biking expeditions go back at least to the mid-1970s.
While a teenager, Rachel accompanied her father, then an American Baptist minister, and her mother, Edith, as they led bike trips between two church camps, one located southeast of Buffalo and the second one near Cooperstown.
And the Canal tour, itself, was a family affair for many.
Dan and Rachel were one of at least three father-daughter pairings, in which the fathers were all 80-plus! Jody Benedict joined her grandfather and aunt for part of the tour, and there was a father-son-grandson team from Scotia, N.Y.
Noting that there were several multi-generational families on the 2008 canal trip, Joan encourages grandparents to invite their grandchildren along to share the experience.
“Training for the trip would accomplish two things: Create beautiful memories and promote physical fitness as a lifestyle . . . As parents and grandparents, we are role models for our family.”
Rachel is considering taking part in this tour again, or the six-day, 200-mile Great Hudson Valley tour in August. Joan said she is also contemplating the Hudson Valley tour, although right now, her sights are set on several running events, including the Mountain Goat Run in Syracuse.
“This year’s challenge for me at age 58 is to run the Mountain Goat — 10 very hilly miles. On New Year’s Eve, I made the resolution — I want to be fit for the rest of my life — not just for “an event.” So keeping the goals will keep me from stopping,” she said.
Dan, however, is going to pass on both bike tours. “I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I’m looking for other goals,” he said. Dan’s favorite memory was that so many people were interested in achieving a common goal. “The whole experience of that many people, that intent on doing something ± everybody was aiming to get to Albany,” he said.
After the group reached their final destination in Albany, Dan told the story of how he was chatting with an 8-year-old girl who had taken the ride with her family.
“I said to her,’ when you turn 85, do it again.’”
Weather can be a challenge. During their stay in Syracuse, a heavy rainstorm had hit, followed by a full rainbow over “tent city.” The word “Eureka” on the tent in the foreground seems apt. While traveling through Seneca Falls, the heat was horrendous, Rachel said, and one of the residents there left out a garden hose with a sign inviting the riders to use it to get some relief.
Dan was in his signature red suspenders. “People ask me why I wear red suspenders,” he said. “I wear them to keep my pants up.”