Going the Distance


Published in IN Community Magazines – Upper St. Clair Fall 2016

PITTSBURGH – The next time the Lapham family goes on a long-distance bicycle trip they will plan a less grueling schedule.

In June, the Lapham family rode more than 330 miles from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. along the Allegheny Passage and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. They undertook the trip because 16-year old Joe Lapham is autistic and loves to ride bicycles. Joe will be a junior at Upper St. Clair High School this fall.

Joe was diagnosed with autism at age three and he has been in special programs since then in order to improve his social skills and intellectual abilities. The bicycle trip is an example of how Joe is full of life, his mother Lori Lapham says.

“Often, children with a disability are looked upon in the community as not having goals, interest, needs or a future,” she says. “We know that’s untrue.”

Joe first began riding a few years ago but was uncomfortable bicycling on city streets. So the Laphams bought several tandem bicycles and started riding together on trails. Bicycling together is an excellent opportunity for family bonding as well as exercise, says Laura Lapham, Joe’s 16-year old twin sister. Joe began asking to go for a bike ride more and more often after the Laphams purchased tandem bikes.

“It just exploded into this passion,” Laura says.

The Lapham started to take their bicycles on family vacations and based their itineraries on which bike trails where nearby. The Laphams prepared for the trip to Washington D.C. by taking progressively longer cycling expeditions, sometimes as far as 50 or 60 miles in a single day. They embarked on the trip on June 12 and left from Point State Park. Joe and his father Gary Lapham rode on a tandem bike together. Laura and several relatives from Texas rode the trails on regular bicycles. A security guard from St. Clair High School, who has known Joe for several years, also participated on the first day of the ride, which ended at Connellsville. Upper St. Clair High School also gave the cyclists t-shirts and rally towels.

Originally, the Laphams planned to complete the journey in five days but it actually took six to reach Washington D.C. The first several days were all steadily uphill as the cyclists climbed along the Allegheny Passage towards the Eastern Continental Divide. They climbed 1700 feet in about 130 miles. Although it wasn’t a steep grade, it was difficult on a tandem bike because it is heavier.

“You don’t get to coast on the way up,” says Laura.

Riding in tandem is also difficult because the two cyclists have to synchronize their pedaling. Tandem bikes are also less maneuverable than regular bicycles.

The family stayed at hotels along the way and Lori dropped all the bikers off at the trail every morning and packed up all the baggage. Sometimes the Laphams stayed in the same hotel for two nights in a row and that meant Lori could join Joe on the trail. They reached the Eastern Continental Divide on the third day and after that point everything was downhill.

“We didn’t have to pedal; that’s all that mattered,” Laura says.

Most of the trail was covered in cinder or gravel, which also made the cycling difficult.

Along the way, the Laphams encountered many different types of wildlife, including herons, deer, turtles, snakes and rabbits. Laura says a fox ran right across their path once and they frequently had to watch out for squirrels that ran between their tires. The scenery was also very rich and the Laphams encountered many beautiful landscapes. Laura says she enjoyed the bridges and especially tunnels that featured exposed rock. The Laphams also rode along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and Laura says she learned a lot about the history of the canal and its locks. However, because the Laphams tried to cover 50 or 60 miles a day, they did not have much time to stop and enjoy what they saw.

“We didn’t get to stop and smell the roses,” Laura says. “We started early and ended late every day. Next time we will try so spread things out so we can enjoy ourselves more.”

The Laphams had a few minor breakdowns but say they will definitely take another long distance bicycle trip in the future.

The Laphams rarely encountered other cyclists or hikers along the way until they approached Washington D.C.

“You break out of the trees and there’s DC,” Lori says.

The trails quickly became crowded with other people as well as dogs. It was hard to maneuver while moving slowly on the crowded trails – especially for Joe and Gary on the tandem bike.

Laura says she was excited and relieved to finally arrive. The Laphams spent the next day visiting museums in the nation’s capital. Joe and Gary went to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum while Laura and Lori went to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

However, Joe wanted to go for a ride again only a day after returning home.

The Lapham’s trip also helped raise more than $1,000 for the Woodlands Foundation, which provides recreational and educational programming for adults and children with special needs or chronic illnesses. The foundation manages a 52-acre campus near Wexford. Joe has attended a summer camp at the Woodlands for several years where he enjoys playing games, hiking, and doing arts and crafts. His favorite part of the summer camp is the dance. Lori says the summer camp is fun for the participants and it also gives families a chance to rest and relax. Laura is also a volunteer at the Woodlands Foundation.

In addition to more family cycling trips, Joe and his family have other big plans. He’s excited about continuing his education after he graduates in two years. Lori Lapham says he wants to have his own apartment downtown and ride the trolley.

“He knows what everybody else has and is striving for the same things,” she says. “He just may need to take a few different avenues to get there.”

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