Riding from NYC to Maryland by Bradley Cox

Sometimes we all need a little impetus, a push to get the wheels rolling…

Last year my parents relocated to Maryland about 260 miles from New York.  For the past few years I knew they were going to eventually end up around the area of their new home and, considering the distance involved, began thinking about taking a multi-day ride outside of the city to visit them.  For most of the past couple of years the idea of cycling to Maryland was just that, an idea, without any real second thought of it actually happening; however, once my parents settled into their new home I knew the time was right.  Over this past winter I put my head down, penciled out my route, and focused my efforts on completing the trip... and the experience did not disappoint.

In the early planning stages I decided to target the weekend before Memorial Day allowing a full week in Maryland before the holiday and ample time to recover before returning to work.  I planned out everything I could think of including my distance prep timeline, making sure I had all of the necessary extra expendables for the ride (tools, extra tubes, snacks, energy gels/drink mix, etc.), and (probably most importantly) a tune up before my departure.  I even made sure to account for the all-important coffee shops along the route.  Everything I needed was lined up in my apartment weeks in advance.

The route I settled on for the first day was in the shape of a “V” from New Brunswick, New Jersey (via NJ Transit from the city) South through Princeton and Trenton along the Delaware Canal Path and Pennsylvania Bike Route E to downtown Philadelphia.  From Philadelphia (at the bottom of the “V”) I would turn Northwest and follow the Schuylkill River Trail approximately 30 miles past Valley Forge to Phoenixville, Pennsylvania where I would pick up Pennsylvania Bike Route S to Morgantown, Pennsylvania.  A total expected distance of 114 miles.

The second day of my trip would have me remain on a westerly track on Pennsylvania Bike Route S through Amish country in Lancaster County and York.  About 20 miles West of York I planned to turn South on Pennsylvania Bike Route J-2 and ride directly through Gettysburg continuing on to the Pennsylvania/Maryland State line.  At the Maryland state line I would turn West for 20 miles through Waynesboro before turning South one last time to head to my parents’ house.  The total expected mileage for the second day - 124 miles.

Ambitious to say the least, but I was undeterred and excited to explore new roads and see the Pennsylvania countryside by bike.

Over the ten days prior to my departure, I watched as the weather forecasts for the 19thand 20th fluctuated from showers, to heavy rain, to cloudy skies, to partly cloudy skies, to monsoon conditions, to passing thunderstorms, and back again.  As much as I wanted clear sunny skies for my trip I began to accept the fact that for at least part of the ride I would be in damp conditions.

I woke early on the 19th to cloudy rainy skies in the city, made some last minute wardrobe adjustments to accommodate the chilly temps, threw my pack on my back, and headed out the door to Penn Station for the 7:11am train to New Brunswick.  The ride to the train station was uneventful but provided an hors d'oeuvre for the day – the roads were wet, my helmet had the tell-tale thumping sound of rain drops, and, for extra added excitement, none of the down escalators at Penn Station between the main entrance and the train platform were operational.

My train departed on time.  I had a banana and water while watching the windows eagerly hoping for the skies to clear.  As the minutes ticked by in unison with the tracks and the darkened clouds continued to billow northwards I made a decision, one that may have saved me a lot of heartache on that first day, I decided to stay on the train to Trenton.  The train arrived in Trenton at 8:45am and, to my surprise, the rain had lightened enough to see from one end of the platform to the other.  After a double check to make sure I had all of my belongings and a quick wave and thank you to the station porter that held the door for me, I was off.

I spent the first mile or so navigating the streets of Trenton to pick up my pre-planned route.  Once I found the correct bike lane and turned South, I was on my way.  After a few short miles I picked up the Delaware Canal Path.

The path consists primarily of crushed red hard packed gravel approximately 6-8 feet wide which hugs the old canal.  Overhanging trees provided some cover from the rain but the trail was soaked and full of puddles which ranged from light shoe splashers to water deep enough to lap at my bottom bracket.  By and large though, the path was pretty clear.  I came across many duck and Canadian geese nests along the way and all of the ducklings and goslings were out with their parents enjoying the misty conditions.  I followed the trail for about 6-8 miles before picking up PA Bike Route E which runs along portions of Route 13 parallel with I-95 and brings you into Philadelphia through the suburbs of North Philadelphia – Holmesburg, Tacony, Frankford, Harrowgate, Port Richmond, and Fishtown.

I experienced the worst rain of my cycling life on Route E.  In several places traffic stopped or slowed to let me ride around flooded portions of the roadway and bottlenecks due to construction.  My wheels were constantly slurping through the water as the rims dipped below the surface of the deepest puddles.  At one point I pulled off at a car wash to take shelter and wait for the heaviest rain to blow over.  Thankfully the storm did not bring any strong winds.  Interestingly though, I discovered that some people DO wash their cars on rainy days…  As soon as the rain let up I continued South to Philly.

In Philadelphia (about 35 miles in for the day) I stopped at the Reading Terminal Market for a much needed coffee and muffin.  I stayed indoors for about 30 minutes and checked the weather (again).  I was pleased to find the hardest rain was subsiding and the afternoon forecast was a mix of light showers and partly cloudy conditions.  I made a break for it.

From downtown I picked up the Schuylkill River Trail which heads out Kelly Drive past the university boat houses.  I passed runners and other cyclists along the way – refreshing considering the weather.

The Schuylkill River Trail is a mix of forested portions (especially further out from Philly), which were thankfully short given the mud, and long stretches of paved asphalt.  Some sections of asphalt were brand new and incredibly smooth with few puddles to navigate.  The path winds its way amongst recreation centers, train tracks, town sports facilities, apartment complexes, and local parks eventually finding its way past the historic Betzwood Studios (for all you film buffs) and Valley Forge.  West of Valley Forge I stopped for another snack break, one more weather review, and distance check to my hotel for the night – 24 miles to go.

The last 18 or so miles to the hotel were pretty serene.  The light was starting to fade a little given the cloudy skies but I was on the road along Pennsylvania Bike Route S.  The rain had completely stopped and aside from the occasional drip or drop off of the trees I was in the clear.  You cannot underestimate the motivation provided by the thought of a warm dry bed after having been in the rain for over eight hours.

I arrived at the hotel shortly before 5:00pm tired but relieved.  After cleaning my bike with a stack of rags, courteously provided by the hotel maintenance department, and eating dinner I called it an early night.

I let myself sleep in until 7:00am because I did not feel well the night before, presumably because of having been in the rain all day.  I rolled out of the hotel parking lot at 8:15am.

I felt good and continued along Pennsylvania Bike Route S West through Lancaster which runs along and/or parallel to Route 30.  The scenery is a true depiction of Americana - rolling farm fields, small side roads, quaint towns, and Amish buggies everywhere (I discovered haphazardly that I timed my departure from the hotel to coincide perfectly with the start of the local Sunday Amish church meetings).  Everyone was friendly and welcomed me by smiling as I passed through their community.

In Lancaster I stopped at one of the abundant Turkey Hill gas stations for a water refill and snack.  After 20 minutes I gathered my belongings and pushed on.

As I continued along the farm fields, I began thinking about my total distance for the day.  It was hard to ignore that it was already after 11:00am and I had covered a little over 35 miles.  With about 90 miles and several stops to go before my parents’ house I began running some rough calculations.  If I managed an average 15 MPH (taking into account water/food stops, the hilly terrain, and the extra weight I was carrying) for about six to six and a half hours (my goal was to be wrapped up for the day between 6:00pm/6:30pm to avoid riding on any back roads after dark), I would be pushing it.  If any one of my remaining rest stops lasted more than 15-20 minutes I would arrive well after nightfall.

While considering my mileage, as if on cue, the skies opened for a brief downpour which soaked me to my skin before I crossed the Susquehanna River.  Lucky for me I caught up with a local rider, Mike, who was kind enough to chat for a bit which took my mind off of the rain and my many miles to come.  Mike told me about the local area, the geology of the surrounding mountains which make up the countless rollers I kept finding, and the history of the Veteran's Memorial Bridge I rode over to cross the Susquehanna River.  Mike and I went our separate ways before I crossed the bridge; I thanked him for the conversation and wished him well for the remainder of his ride.

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As soon as I crossed the Susquehanna River I began my endless calculations again and decided that it would be in my best interest to stop in York.  I made a quick phone call before ducking into one of my pre-planned coffee shops along my route.  I ate a late lunch and waited for the cavalry to arrive.  Side note – if you are ever in the York area, I highly recommend the I-Ron-Ic Coffee Café.  The staff was incredibly kind, courteous, and interested in what brought me to the area.  They let me bring my bike inside and I spent a good hour in their outdoor garden soaking up the sun while waiting for my ride.

Following my two days of riding, I had a great week with my parents, visiting my Dad's alma mater – the University of Maryland, grilling some steaks at their house, stopping off at Antietam for a tour, and taking in some art at a local museum.  I could never be disappointed with cutting my ride short 60 miles from Maryland given the conditions I endured my first day and supporting myself through the duration of the trip.  Even if I did not cover the full distance and get as many photographs a I would have liked for the journey, I challenged myself, rode in horrible weather, and checked all of the boxes I intended before I set out.

I highly recommend everyone make at least one ride like this every cycling season.  This particular route is incredibly convenient for anyone living in or around the New York City area as the transit and route options are right in your backyard.  I picked up a rental car for the return and made the drive back to the city in about four hours with light traffic.  You do not have to take this particular ride, although I would recommend it (preferably on a sunny day and in warm conditions, but rain is okay too, if that’s your thing), but Connecticut, upstate New York, and Vermont are only a few pedal cranks away.

Google Maps has an excellent feature for locating cycling routes which was a huge help when planning this trip.  You can also search Google for state bike routes which will give you an idea of which states have marked roads/paths for cycling and where the routes go (as an example, Pennsylvania Bike Route S runs from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh with the westernmost portion running along an old abandoned section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike which includes a couple mile long tunnels).  Similarly, New York state has the same type of system you are familiar with on Route 9 (if you are so inclined, Route 9 runs all the way to the Canadian border and on to Montreal).

Riding my bike has always provided a type of freedom that is hard to describe in words.  This trip was the distillation of that freedom coupled with a little grit and adventurous spirit.  I will make this trip again, especially now that I know the roads, terrain, and have realistic expectations.  I am targeting September/October of 2019 (unless I hit the lotto, in which case, the next two weekends look ideal) and plan to schedule the Lancaster portion of the ride on a day other than Sunday so I can take advantage of the roadside produce stands and enjoy the Autumn foliage.  I also have a few ideas on variations to the route to keep the experience fresh and see some new towns along the way.  I cannot wait to give this another go.

For pictures of my trip, you can check out my Instagram @coxbradleym; I also posted my route (and a few of my training rides leading up to my vacation) on my Strava account for anyone who would like to take a look.

Safe cycling and tailwinds to all.