Basic Facts About Bicycle Touring

Q: What kind of stuff do you need to take on a bicycle trip?

A: You have to have three sets of things: 1) tools, 2) sleeping equipment, and 3) clothes. Except on my Alaska trip, I carried everything in or attached to a backpack just like a college student uses. This contains my tools (mostly allen wrenches, an adjustable wrench, a spoke wrench, tire irons, some spokes, and a couple of spare tubes), one or two changes of clothes, a blanket, a tarp (which keeps off the rain and doubles as an extra blanket on cold nights), a Wal-Mart brand tent, and a toothbrush. That's it!

Q: That's it? You've got to be crazy!

A: I travel much lighter than the ordinary traveler--but I also travel further each day, about 75 mi. per riding day average, vs. 50 for bike tourists in general. I also don't bother cooking--I eat finger foods or food cold out of the can. It's just so much simpler, and quicker. In Alaska I tried using front panniers, and I brought a sleeping bag. That's a lot more comfortable than sleeping on the bottom of the tent with a blanket over you; I ended up sleeping about one hour less per night to get the same amount of rest.

Q: Only two or three changes of clothes? You must smell pretty bad.

A: I reckon I do. But I smell all right to myself!!

Q: How fast do you go?

A: On flat ground, no wind, about 13 m.p.h. while riding, though I generally take a break every hour or so. Flat ground with the wind, or a steady moderate downhills, I average 16-18 m.p.h.; into a moderate wind or uphill, about 10 m.p.h.; into a steady wind, or going uphill against a moderate wind, 7-8 m.p.h. The average riding day consists of about 1.5 hrs. of breakfast and breaking camp, a 9-10 hr. day of riding, with lunch and dinner included in there, and breaks, as mentioned; then set up camp, take a walk or unwind, and go to sleep. But I am sure to allocate time for sightseeing. My Alaska trip had 12.5 riding days and 7.5 sightseeing days.

Q: Do you train a lot for these trips?

A: I don't train at all. I run regularly, so my legs are suited to long workouts, and bike touring is not about speed, just persistence, so you don't have to work on getting fast. You won't run into trouble because not you're speedy enough. You can run into trouble if your legs go to jelly after a three or four (or more) 60+ mile days. That's what you have to be prepared for. Pacing yourself, and taking regular breaks (usually, every four days or less, depending on the sightseeing), is essential.

Q: Isn't it lonely?

A: In a way. It is supposed to be an adventure, though, so it's not like you're looking around for company. Your thoughts are always attuned to seeing the country and completing the journey efficiently. Plus, it provides a rare opportunity to observe the civilized world from a detached viewpoint. Spend three or four days without ever being under a roof and your perspective on civilization changes!

Q: Is it at all painful?

A: It is painful everywhere. Your leg muscles get tight from all the exertion; after a week or so on the road, I utter a little cry every time I sit down somewhere. Your neck hurts from looking up so long while wearing a helmet; the wind and sun can make your lips split and your nose peel; your arms, wrists particularly, and butt all feel the effects of an 8 or more hour day on a bicycle seat. It's all quite tolerable for about 85 miles; after that my knees, neck, and arms all start going to pieces.

Q: I would be worried about the dangers.

A: A lot of dangers can be addressed by thorough planning. It is possible, with some experience, to anticipate a lot about road conditions from a thorough study of maps; as a result, I rarely travel on high or even medium-traffic roads. Knowledge of the local geology, study of topographic maps if necessary, and study of the weather altas can tell you a lot about what to expect in terms of wind, sleeping weather, hills, and rain.

I never been threatened by anybody, and I don't really carry anything worth taking, and I try to camp in established campgrounds as often as possible. I always wear a helmet, don't go too fast on steep downhills, and have a rear-view mirror. So I minimize the risks as much as I can.

Q: What were your best and worst days?

A: My easiest day would be tough to identify, I have had so many. Days with a 20 m.p.h. wind at my back, and gentle hills before me, for sixty miles solid. Downhills that have lasted for thirty miles or more, some with a wind to go with them. I have been up several steep, long grades in the mountains over the course of time, but my toughest day would be the culmination of a three day ride across the Nebraska Sandhills, rugged desolate country. My friend Steve and I fought a 20 m.p.h. wind most of the way, plus the hills. The last day of the three, we fought our way up a series of long, steep grades, into a fierce wind, for about forty miles. It was a cold day, too; and there was nowhere to stop and recharge, so we both kept feeling worse and worse. Finally, we stopped, after a long stretch of savanna, at a line of trees to reassess whether we could complete the day's ride--the only time I have ever done that. What we didn't know is that it would be all downhill (and beautiful) from that point on--by the end of the day, we had completed the ride! I've had several other days with vicious wind, steep climbs (3000 ft. elevation gains or more), or steady rain, but none combined weather, wind, and terrain like that one day did.

Q: What is the Grand Slam?

A: The Grand Slam is running into four wild animals, heavier than you are, on the road. In my trips I have come face to face with (within about 10 yards of) a bull (in Kansas, and later in Mississippi), a bison (in South Dakota), a burro (in Nevada), and a moose (in Alaska). That's my grand slam!

Q: Well, I guess that just about does it.

A: Afraid so.

Q: You must enjoy them if you keep doing them.

A: Sure do. The sense of freedom, of adventure, can't be beat. And easily overlooked is the simple thrill of riding, riding, long distances through pure country with nary a responsibility in the world. You get to feel a part of the land you are travelling through, not just a visitor; and when you return someday that land will still be your friend.