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Rivers of Steel guides Mon Valley Bike Tours through Steel Valley area

| Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, 7:02 p.m.
Eric Slagle | Daily News
Marge and Don Miller of Rangely, Maine get directions from Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area tour guides Kelsy Traeger and Eric Horgos at Historic Pump House in Munhall.
Eric Slagle | Daily News
Mike and Gemmi Holland of Denver, Colo., pause with Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area bike tour guides Kelsy Traeger and Eric Horgos pause on the Riverton Bridge over the Monongahela River going into McKeesport to discuss aspects of the regions industrial history.

Bicycle travel is ideal for the curious tourist.

It's faster and easier on the feet than shoe leather sightseeing but doesn't reduce everything to a blur the way automobile touring often does.

It's no surprise then that a lot of vacationers are using the Great Allegheny Passage as a way of connecting with the sights and sounds of Western Pennsylvania and Maryland. Nor is it surprising that a small touring industry has sprung up to cater to their needs.

Whether it's a short ride that takes in the industrial heritage surrounding the trail between Homestead and McKeesport or a more involved trip from Pittsburgh to Cumberland (or beyond), there are a number of tour packages now available to GAP riders.

Hotels, bed and breakfasts and other businesses are catering their services to bike travelers.

The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area — which became an early embracer of the trail scene when its Historic Pump House in Munhall became ground zero for folks accessing the trail in the Waterfront — recently began offering Mon Valley Bike Tours to give cyclists a greater understanding of the history of towns along the segment of the trail overseen by the Steel Valley Trail Council.

These tours typically serve as a jumping-off point for riders traveling from Pittsburgh to Cumberland.

“To me, this is where you are leaving metropolitan America and entering Appalachia,” said Rivers of Steel tour guide Eric Horgos as he and co-tour guide Kelsy Traeger went out on a recent ride. Horgos, whose area of concentration is geography, is well-versed on the subject of how the region's rivers, mountains and natural resources contributed to its development.

Traeger, on the other hand, who specializes in public history, is knowledgeable on the cultural and economic aspects of development in the Mon Valley.

“You had 200,000 men that worked here over the years,” she said while leading a couple along the trail in an area that once was the U.S. Steel Homestead Works.

On this particular morning, it was Mike and Gemmi Holland of Denver, Colo., taking the Rivers of Steel tour. The couple, who are retired, got into cycling about four years ago. Setting out for Washington, D.C., on a tandem bike they rented for the purpose, the couple decided on the guided tour for the first leg of their journey to get a better understanding of the region.

Had they gone it alone, “We wouldn't have known anything,” said Mike Holland as the tour rolled through McKeesport.

“And it gives us something to tell to our family and friends,” added Gemmi Holland.

The Hollands, who were planning to spend their first night in West Newton, said they wanted to take their time seeing the trail and surrounding countryside.

“Why would you want to hurry with this?” asked Mike Holland as they stopped trailside by the McKee's Point Marina on the Youghiogheny River.

Travelers like the Hollands are becoming more and more common.

Lisa Bowlin, a sales manager for the Courtyard Marriott in Pittsburgh, said she's discovered the trail brings many types of visitors to the region.

“We quickly learned it wasn't just the rustic backpacker,” said Bowlin, who worked at the Courtyard's Waterfront location and is now at the company's downtown location. “We found it was a lot of retired people and career professionals” who were planning tours along the trail.

“We realized we needed to be accommodating to these people,” she added, noting the hotel started reaching out to cyclists by offering special rates. It also had to dedicate a part of its storage area for bikes that were being shipped in, and it began partnering with local bike shops that offer bike maintenance and assembly services.

Bowlin said bike tourists are “thrill-seeking travelers.”

“They're interested in experiencing the trail but they also are interested in experiencing the city,” she said, noting Courtyard in Pittsburgh is popular with adult riders while the Waterfront location tends to draw more families with younger riders.

The trail, said Bowlin, “has been a benefit to most area businesses whether they realize it or not.”

Sara Petyk, founder of the tour planning group Bike-the-Gap, no doubt realizes the benefits the trail is bringing to communities along it.

She helps riders organize self-guided tours all along the GAP and connecting C&O Canal Towpath.

“The trail isn't technically very difficult, so an actual tour guide isn't required,” explained Petyk. Her company acts more like a travel agent. They plan the lodging, meals, bike rentals, shuttles and other activities and services along the way.

Petyk said side activities for her clients include golf, horseback riding, spas, rafting and sightseeing at attractions like Falling Water. Clientele tends to be in the 50-and-up age group and usually is interested in tours that last four to five days.

Petyk said her company and others like it are offering a convenience to travelers.

“A lot of people don't have time to plan,” she said, adding that, in terms of sales, her business has tripled in size this year. “We are already taking reservations for 2014.”

Petyk, who also is president of the Steel Valley Trail Council, said she believes communities along the trail are just starting to realize its economic potential.

Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or eslagle@tribweb.com.

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