Demystifying the bike tour

February 25, 2014 § 6 Comments

This post is dedicated to:  all of the people who ride their bikes every once in awhile and have ever thought about touring, all of the people who haven’t ridden a bike in years and are afraid to get back in the saddle, and to all the people who never learned how to ride a bike, but wonder what it might be like.

Hey – yeah, you – I love you, man. And I believe in you.

Dear friend,

Have you ever thought it might be cool to be out there on the open road with the world as your playground? Do you relish in personal feats of greatness, like the first time you chugged a beer or did a pull up? Do you believe in you like I believe in you?

If your answers weren’t yes-yes-and-yes than go back, fix it, and read on.

I’m not sure how it happened, but when I was in college I decided that it’d be a good idea to bike for hundreds of miles while carrying all of the stuff that I needed to live with me. I had biked 30 miles in the California Central Valley flat-lands at a maximum of 15 miles/hr and thought, “how hard could it be to go 50 a day with some stuff?”

At the time I had a heavy blue women’s road bike from the 80’s. I got it from a bike auction for $50. It barely shifted gears and weighed a ton, but I was proud of it. With the help of the internet and the nice people at Ken’s Bike and Ski, I changed the handlebar tape, got new tires, adjusted the break pads and pretty much thought that with enough mental fortitude, I could go anywhere with it.

a bike and some field

I’d biked around the neighborhood in high school (both in Naperville, Il and in San Diego, CA) and even hit a trail or two when I was younger, but by no means was I particularly fit or well versed (hell, not even mediocrely versed) in bicycles. I struggled to change the tires with two butter knifes and was pretty sure the gears shifted by magic.

So what was the difference between me and the folks who don’t up end up bike touring?

Definitely not experience or the right gear. Not money or physical aptitude. Not training or extensive research. Not friends who knew what they were doing or backup from a supported touring company.

The difference comes down to two things: Hardheadedness and Wanderlust.

Wanderlust: At a base level, if you can take all of the imagined barriers that would stop you from bike touring and pull them out of your head (“I’m not fit enough,” “It seems dangerous!,” “What if I get lost!” … etc.) and imagine instead coasting on a downhill of an empty road – feeling like you’re flying, no cars in sight, the smell of sweet summer all around and a warm sun keeping you company, a rolling landscape of greenery all around you … And then ask yourself, does that seem like a totally awesome place to be?

If the answer “yes,” than congratulations, you qualify for having wanderlust! Step one towards bike touring, check.

At the base level, potential difficulties and bumps in the road aside, you have to want to be out there. You have to be able to imagine navigating the world around you like it belongs to you, like it’s yours for exploring.

Hardheadedness: Of course, that imagined world isn’t the full reality of bike touring (or anything for that matter). You’ll crest hills just to see another hill and wonder why in the hell you ever thought this was a good idea. Your butt will hurt. You’ll chaff. You’ll wake up and be sore and have to get on a bike again. You’ll be smelly and maybe have a sunburn too.

Inevitably, someone’s bike will break, or you’ll get lost. If you’re going 300+ miles, you’ll definitely get in your own head. It’s not like a marathon or climbing a mountain. If those things get hard, you can just turn back. If you’re in the backcountry 200 miles from where you started, you’ve pretty much got to power through it, pain and hardness aside.

Even with a lot of wanderlust, many people think of or hear these challenges and think, “Man, that doesn’t seem worth the idyllic scene I dreamt up,” or “it seems worth it, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to overcome it.”

These did not seem like fun parts bike touring, but my hardheadedness meant that overcoming these parts were totally a challenge I wanted to face. I read bike blogs where people got so far down the rabbit hole in their posts that I could only imagine the terrible place they were in real life. Testimonies of strained muscles, dog attacks, and walking bikes for half the day … they all sounded like a mental challenges that I wanted to win at. They all sounded like things I wanted to test my resolve against. I thought, “Fuck the hard things! I’m awesome. I’ll make them my bitch!”

Call it hardheadedness, tenacity, stubbornness, or ego – I was convinced I could take on the challenges of going long distances carrying all of my shit.

But here’s the secret…

It doesn’t actually take that much mental fortitude to tour. I had read the worst blogs and imagined the hardest situations, and then put myself there. I’d acquiesced to the fact that I would be the one in the worst shape and that I’d be the one to fall over and get injured. I’d acquiesced to the fact that these things would be terrible, BUT that I’d surely overcome them. Hardheadedness.


That’s how I got over the “Well that’d be nice, but …” hump and onto the “Alright, win or lose, I’m doing this thing” side of the fence.

And really, like most things, that was most of the battle.

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.
– Mark Twain

steps to bike touring

If you’re looking to break down a tour into victory, the first think you absolutely have to do is actually decide. This seems silly to say, but going on a long bike tour is not like deciding to do your laundry or go to law school or run a marathon or even go backpacking in Europe. These are all things that are within people’s experience and understanding of what is possible, things they’ve heard of, things people they know have done. So trust me when I say that you can do it and decide. Post it on your blog, tell your mom .. twitter it, tumblr it, snapchat it, whatever-else-kids-do-these-days it.

The rest..

Deciding is over half the battle and the internet (and maybe your doctor?) is full of advice and how to on the rest. Figuring out which bike is best to how much you need to train are more issues of personal preference than I expected when I went on my first tour. I met people on the road with one change of clothing and single gear bikes. I met others with fancy GPS’s and the latest lightweight backpacking gear. One of my friends did his tour on a mountain bike with three gears and some $5 canvass bags zip tied to his Rite Aid bike rack.

I read blogs on Crazy Guy on a Bike, pulled various people’s route maps, read their testimonials, and mostly wandered into bike stores in town and bought gear that looked like it wouldn’t fall apart, which really meant the cheapest gear (the nice thing about a niche hobby is that there really isn’t enough of a market for low end gear to have infiltrated the market). I didn’t do any loaded rides. I didn’t even think to bring spare tubes (maybe don’t follow my lead on this one…).

And I made it.

450 miles down the coast of California, drinkin’ and lounging and watching the world in the light of endless possibilities.

So friend.

I hope this was inspiration enough, because bro, I believe in you. I look forward to totally awesome pictures and reports from your trip.


don’t follow Austrians down mountains

February 18, 2014 § 2 Comments

2013-12-18 13.04.35“Skiing is like floating, you turn, look at the beautiful views, turn, swoosh, swoosh. It’s so relaxing!”

Meet Peter, he’s from Austria and has been skiing since he was four. The way he describes his experience skiing fits in pretty will with how he actually looks skiing – like a fucking swan gliding pristinely over a misty lake in the morning sunrise. It’s gorgeous, it’s disgusting. Compare to my description of snowboarding, “And I’m like, carve, carve, carve, focus, cut, stabilize, yeah!”

Unfortunately for Peter, most of us on our most recent ski trip were into easy to moderately challenging blues – some because of skill limitation, some because of laziness. So for the first four days, we shredded some mild gnar, pounded only a little bit of pow pow, and mostly drank bacon bloody marys at the bottom of the mountain. Fortunately, Snowmass is a big ol’ beast of a mountain and Aspen Mountain gave the more adventurous of us a lot to explore.

We’d been eyeing a run all week called Long Shot (left side of the mountain,) and Peter had scoped it out, but I had held off until the snow hit on the last day. It was a total white-out and the sky had been letting loose all night. We took the gondola up, boarded down a little hill (what’s the proper word choice here given that other folks were on skis? sboarded?), unbuckled and took the short hike up to the run.

The top part of the run looked like all trees, with more power and more tree density on the left side of the run (a double black on any mountain not in Colorado) and more of an Aspen blue on the right side. I haven’t been in hip deep powder since I was learning to board (didn’t move much, but got a looooot of exercise flailing in snow – surprise!)  so I was inclined to the more blue looking run, but Peter was confident that the tree-powder would be easier, fewer mogul type things for a snowboard to navigate. Our other friends zipped off to the right, I followed down the left.

Sliding down like butter, it was almost too easy – except for the dense trees coupled with weak skills resulting in an inability to carve to a stop that is – POWDER FACE! Peter paused, “Is this a good pace?”

“Sure,” I said. It was fine, but the path down looked more treacherous.

“Okay cool – well at the bottom of this there’s a creek, don’t try to board over it! You have to walk. Got it?”

He floated down, zipping between trees. Welp. Not much of a choice now…SWAH – POW .. pffffff…. My goggles are filled with snow, face dripping. Pack the powder down around me, grab at tree branches. Flop. Woosh. Stare up in a moment of zen. Cut, jump, slide, SLAM. Breathe out. It’s like doing push up sets  with some squats inbetween.

On the third full body powder pound, I found myself thigh deep with my board on, the only one in the woods with giant snowflakes drifting down through a mist of fog, muttering that I was going to kill Peter. I decide to take off my board and swim-crawl-trudge to the blue run – the idea of more of this plus a creek to avoid seemed terrible; it’s no more than 200 feet, but it feels like a century ride uphill. By the time I get there, I’m ready for my bloody mary, but there’s a whole mountain in the way.

That’s the thing about physical activity that isn’t at the gym or around your house. You end up out in the middle of wherever. It’s not necessarily life threatening. It’s probably barely even dangerous. But you’re definitely there, and whether you’re friends are out there with you waiting for the next wave break or peddling up that mountain, at the end of the day, you’ve gotten yourself there and no one but you can get you out.

There’s no quitting. There are no shortcuts.

So, I power up and powder down. It’s a open mouth, tongue lolling ride with stretches of untouched powder, cut with hard drops and moguls. There’s no one else on the run, all of our group already long gone. I howl as a blast down, a lone wolf on a thrill hunt, all my curses at Peter forgotten.

At the bottom at the flats, I hitch a pole ride from some skiiers and stumble into the lodge.

“You’re alive!”

Just barely, but with an important lesson learned. Don’t follow Austrians down mountains.

The Commuter

February 10, 2014 § 3 Comments

snow parking

The bike lane is piled high with two feet of snow packed in. Trailing down into the road is a brown crunchy snow-salt-ice. I skirt the edge of this wall. Sometimes it’s in a gross slushy brown snow-water, spitting salt on my bike and into my derailleur. Sometimes it’s on packed in snow-ice, making me wonder which icy grooves are safely maneuverable. Other times it’s just salt water, puddled in giant potholes, keeping me focused, dodging.

Cars whizz by, unaware at the treachery on the edges of the road.

I’m rocking my Nokian Suomi IceSpeed metal studded tires. They’re friction machines – clear pavement is a harder grind and you lose the whee! effect of downhills, but not eating pavement on unplowed snowpacked roads makes it seem like a fair trade.

studded snow bike tires

Impossibly there are other bike commuters – face masks pulled up, cranking in the opposite direction, we silently nod before focusing back on the road, comrades in snow cycling, few and far between.

We pile our bikes high, lock them up, simple machines persevering in the face of the world literally freezing over.

snow bike gear

bike parked snow

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