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.


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