Buffalo, NY – Five hundred bike riders left Buffalo last week for an eight-day trip along the Erie Canal. They arrived in Albany Sunday, the final destination of a 400-mile bike ride. WBFO's Josie Roberts rode the first leg of Cycling the Erie Canal -- the 47.2 miles from Buffalo to Medina.
Before we even took off from the Nichols School near Delaware Park, Derrick Bateman had a problem.
"It wasn't a delicate flat tire. It was a big flat tire," Bateman said.
It wasn't exactly the title the Buffalo resident hoped for.
"First flat tire of the 400-mile trip, no."
I later saw Bateman on the bike trail, flying past me on his repaired bike. In fact most of the Erie Canal cyclists sped by me, even though the average age on the trip was 49 and I'm supposedly a spritely 22.
Our first stop of the day was at Gateway Park in Tonawanda. I felt like I'd already conquered a major feat. Eleven miles into this bike ride my quads were tightening up. Bernie Cunningham, a rider from Marlboro, New York with salt-and-pepper hair told a different story.
"Absolutely, positively super fantastic. This is the greatest thing that's happened to me," Cunningham said. "It really is."
So have you done bike rides like this before?
"First one ever," he said. "Had a heart attack two years ago. Been on the mend and I'm proving this to myself that I'm going to make all 400 miles and keep up with the group."
We looked out on the sparkling water of the canal, admired the towering house boats, half in awe and half-staying just to rest our legs. An eight-day bike trip is work, but it's also Cunningham's idea of a vacation.
"I think this whole New York state is absolutely gorgeous, and we should, instead of vacationing in other countries and stuff we should spent our time here," Cunningham said. "Campers and tents behind our cars again and bring our families back out here. This is a gorgeous place."
The Cycling the Erie Canal trip helps promote New York tourism. Riders came from 35 different states to challenge their bodies and to immerse themselves in the history of the canal. Biking next to the waterway, secluded by trees and removed from the bustle of everyday civilization, you get an intimate look at the canal. John Dimura works with the New York State Canal Corporation, and as we rode side by side, we talked about the charming canal towns that dot the trailway.
"I think in this area, in the Western part of the state there's a strong connection to the canal because many of these towns owe their existence to the canal," Dimura said. "They kind of started with the canal in 1825."
As we rode, we watched teenage boys jump from the top of canal bridges outside Gasport. We waved to boaters and people gliding by on their kayaks. It's so peaceful along the corridor it's almost eerie. Bill Riley, a rider from Oswego, New York had another word for it.
But the historic significance wasn't lost on him.
"We had a terrific time going through the locks," Riley said. "I could not comprehend that whole concept of what did he say, 3-1/2 million gallons of water being either put in or taken out in 25 foot rise or drop in 3-1/2 minutes. It's just incredible."
By about 2 o'clock in the afternoon and 40 miles into the bike ride, my exhausted body needed a break. It's wasn't even my legs that were tired anymore. It was my wrists, my knees, my lower back, my sunburned shoulders. Luckily, outside Middleport, I found Carl Witter.
"I'm working watermelon detail," Witter said. "I'm with the afternoon rest stop."
Witter, who lives in Bloomfield, Connecticut, came back for his second year on Cycling the Erie Canal to volunteer.
"Oh boy, I guess I forgot all about the pain at the end of the ride," he said. "I just must have forgotten about all of the hard parts."
With only seven miles left to go to Medina, where we would camp out overnight, I pulled back on the gravel trail. Without training better, I probably couldn't have made it seven more days to Albany, but I was thankful I discovered the canal. Dimura would finish the trip.
"It is it's own little world, especially when you hit these rural stretches in between the villages and towns," Dimura said. "In a way it's almost like going back in time."