Couple organizes bike tours along Erie Canal
By Mike Costanza
Diane Kolifrath turned a love of cycling into a going business. Her company, Great American Bike Tours, gives bicycle tours in the Erie Canal and the northeast US and as far away as Canada.
Kolifrath came up with the idea of founding a bicycle tour company in 2015, when she was rolling along Canada’s Le Petit du Nord trail with her husband, Ron Bailey, and some friends.
“I was inspired to start a business that would leave my career as an IT director behind, which was kind of just chewing me up and spitting me out every day,” the 61-year-old said.
Kolifrath and her husband live in Raymond, New Hampshire, but at that time were spending May through October in Syracuse. Though they enjoyed cycling the Erie Canalway Trail, which runs along the Erie Canal through Syracuse, the lack of services for bicyclists made long-distance trips a bit difficult.
“The kind of bike trails had no support services,” she said. “I saw that void.”
That led Kolifrath to start Erie Canal Bike Tours. The company initially had only two employees — she and her husband — and offered small-scale bike tours and services to those cycling the Erie Canal. That changed in 2017, when the Albany Symphony Orchestra asked the firm to help celebrate the historic waterway’s bicentennial. Construction of the canal began in 1817.
Partnering with the New York State Canal Corporation, the Albany Symphony arranged to give seven performances in cities and town along the length of the Erie Canal in July of that year. Audiences from Albany to Lockport had the chance to enjoy music from the orchestra’s Water Music New York series.
In response to the Albany Symphony’s request, Erie Canal Bike Tours ran a tour of the canal that coincided with the orchestra’s performances. Kolifrath led 12 cyclists who pedaled along the waterway from Albany to Syracuse, a distance of about 150 miles. Her company provided meals, lodging and other supports for the cyclists and the orchestra provided the music.
“We got front-row seats for each of the performances that they did,” she said.
Since then, Kolifrath has expanded her business and changed its name to Great American Bike Tours. The company now has nine employees, including 63-year-old Bailey, and offers a variety of bike tours. While most go through the northeast US — the Le Petit du Nord tour goes hundreds of miles from north of Montreal, Canada, to Burlington, Vermont — the Erie Canalway Trail tour is one of the company’s more popular offerings.
“We start at Buffalo and we cycle all the way to Albany,” Kolifrath said. “We’re the only cycle touring company that does the entire Erie Canal.”
The full Erie Canalway Trail tour runs about 400 miles, including a 40-mile detour to sightsee and rest in Seneca Falls and takes nine days to complete.
Those who are seeking a shorter trip can do just the eastern or western halves of the canal.
Kolifrath still leads about half of Great American Bike Tours’ trips. Bailey, the company’s operations director, manages the firm’s rolling stock, which includes four support vans that accompany cyclists on tours. The vehicles carry first aid supplies, cyclists’ luggage and snacks and water for customers’ comfort and are also mobile bike repair shops.
Tired riders ride in them if they need a break.
For more information on Great American Bike Tours, visit www.CycleTheUSA.com.
Top image: Group of bikers along the Erie Canal. Photos provided by Great American Bike Tours.