Touring NE New Mexico, Summer 2011: Somewhere Near Trementina, NM
Every Summer since 2009, with one exception, I’ve gone on some length of bicycle touring either here in the States or through parts of Europe. These tours have included rolling along a few hundred miles of the Mississippi River, getting from Pittsburgh to D.C. and then up to NYC along various routes, exploring the Sandhills of Nebraska and countless farms of Iowa, and two trips to Germany, one heading west all the way to Amsterdam.
I’m a big fan of such 12 mph tourism, and will have the chance starting next month to commence turning the pedals in Lisbon and, somehow, find myself in Copenhagen about 50 days later. Yes, there may be some train “cheating” along the nearly 2,000 miles, but that’s the “plan.” I place the plan is quotation marks, for I notoriously underplan these things, and this tendency is the first of a few urgings, recommendations, and observations I’ll be making today regarding you and bicycle touring.
Urging: Don’t Plan Much
Despite having been something of a bike nerd for decades, I didn’t know anything about bicycle touring until the mid-2000s when I came across the website “Crazy Guy on a Bike” (CGOAB) and the organization Adventure Cycling Association. I had previously spoken with one or two fellow bike nerds who had ventured long distances, but didn’t realize that: A. This vein of bike nerdom was quite so rich; B. That many such nerds planned, cogitated, agonized, trained, discussed, fretted, trained some more, spent hours and hours deciding whether to take spare wheel spokes or not (and how many spokes), planned further and also vented about all of the above in posts to fellow bike nerds.
Fortunately for me, one whose disposition is more of the “wing it” variety, I found fellow nerds at CGOAB who did not fully map out routes months in advance down to every right and left turn, and seemed to have, somehow, similarly survive their lengthy journeys. In fact, these non-planners seemed to have more fun, which gets me to Observation #1.
My folding bike and I lost at the German/Netherlands border, 2012. The “foldy” and I had clocked exactly 1,000 miles on this tour at this point.
Observation: Getting Lost is the Best Part
In a variation of that axiom that “anything worth doing is worth doing badly,” a key component in successful bicycle touring is to be unsuccessful. For instance, getting hopelessly lost miles from any shelter, food, and other Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, and then, somehow, happening across some, often very limited, form of providing those Needs is about the coolest thing ever. You don’t exactly seek out failure, but you embrace its possibility, in fact its inevitability.
At the entrance of Meeman Shelby State Park outside Memphis toward the tail end of a 90-mile riding day featuring terrifying Tennessee dogs, miles hopelessly lost on the Mississippi, 90 degree heat and 80% humidity. In other words, a total blast. And yes, you can eat as many damn Pringles as you want on a bicycle tour.
Observation: And Yes, You Have Literally Hours and Hours and Hours to Contemplate this “Embrace its Possibility, in Fact its Inevitability” Concept on a Bicycle Tour
Heck, when you’re turning pedals 50 miles a day, there’s oodles of time for such thinking. There’s also a strong correlation between getting lost in such thoughts and getting literally lost, but we’ll move on to another point now.
Urging: Don’t “Train” Too Much
I refer here to the body/mind training almost all potential tourers feel they must undergo to “get ready” for a bicycle tour. As counterintuitive (or insane) as it might sound, spending a great deal of time training and worrying about training isn’t conducive to bicycle touring, in my humble opinion. Instead, folks get the idea that inadequate training means they cannot participate in a tour, and, hence, they don’t go. That is the Very First Rule of Bicycle Touring: You Gotta Go. Anything that gets in the way of touring, e.g., inadequate training, employment, relationships (I kid, but yeah, you need a very supportive significant other for such things) does the unforgivable: It stops you from touring.
So what if you haven’t trained 150 miles per week with full panniers up and down Tijeras Canyon? Start slow and, before you know it, simply continuing to turn the pedals day after day, mile after mile, will get you in far better shape than any reasonable home-based training schedule. That’s because it would NEVER be reasonable to ride 300 miles a week back home. You have a job, perhaps; you have a relationship, perhaps; you have a 40 hour per week “Call of Duty” fixation, whatever…you’re probably not gonna ride 300 miles a week for a month here in the Duke City.
So just start touring, even if it’s only a few miles a day that first week. The extra pounds and accompanying extra pain will go away, and you can concentrate instead on things like getting lost and the fact that you probably will need to buy several pairs of slimmer pants when you get back home.
Gladstone, New Jersey Transit Station, 2011. Minutes after taking this photo I would literally have to beg a hostile conductor that he allow my bike on the train. Looking back now, this tense experience just makes me laugh thinking about it.
Recommendation: Don’t Spend Your Way to Touring Success
Like most things, you can spend an absurd amount of money on a bicycle tour. But you don’t have to. Yes, it’s almost certainly going to cost more to tour than to just live back home, but it can get pretty darn close to even. Plenty of tourers camp out (not me, see Observation below), saving astounding amounts of money otherwise spent on lodging. Having myself thrown $90 a night for a Super 8 Motel room in Osage, Iowa, I can tell you that doing so is not wise or necessarily needed (although it seemed a rational thing to do at the time).
One big advantage of touring in Europe, despite the Euro conversion, is the extensive system of lower-cost lodging options. Youth hostels, of course not merely for the young, are widespread. Pensions, French Gites and other forms of what Germans call “Privatzimmers” offer cheap places to stay, often with fascinating chances to interact and experience local life.
For example, in touring Germany I eventually decided to eschew the fine youth hostels and just go with private rooms in houses. These places are often run by widows or single-older women who keep their “empty nest” and rent out one of their kid’s old bedrooms. The chance to stay at such places offers incredibly rich opportunities to see what life is really like, as opposed to a stay at, say, the local Accor Hotel or even the Youth Hostel. To look upon the fireplace mantel and see old family photos with dear relatives in their military uniforms builds a bond between visiting tourer and resident. The fact that the military uniforms are Nazi military uniforms provides a thought-provoking context to the situation.
Final Recommendation: Tour Like You Want to Tour
I mentioned above that many, perhaps even most, long-distance bicycle tourers camp out most of the time. It only makes sense. Still, camping out after riding a bicycle 75 miles over six or seven hours doesn’t always make for comfortable camping, regardless of savings. So after a few fairly sleepless nights “doing what other tourers do,” I decided early on that I’d save camping “for special occasions” (i.e, I was broke) and spend most nights on a bed more comfortable than a Thermarest on the ground.
But that might not be you. Plenty of folks sleep better under the stars. Some like eating in restaurants on tours; others like cooking for themselves on camp stoves; while others just prefer spooning their way through day after day of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, even in France.
Yes, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in France does sound beyond sacrilegiously insane, but at least these crazy folks are touring like they want to tour. Some tourers only go 25 miles a day, meandering from village to village, shop to shop. Some break 100 miles a day, covering continents at an amazing clip.
Myself, I’m a 50-60 mile a day, sleep on a decent bed, eat breakfast and dinner out and “grocery store” lunch and snacks kind of guy. If it’s raining too hard, I just stay in most days. If the wind is at my back, I might end up riding 100 miles. That’s just me and my unplanning self.
Find what works for you by heading out, highly planned or no, and you’ll probably come to find out a bit more about yourself along the way, see bits of the world at a speed at which you can truly come to experience and interact with the place, and arrive, somehow, at a mental state that sees obstacles as opportunities and getting lost as an advantage.
So I’m leaving for Lisbon in three weeks. I return from Copenhagen on July 22nd. Everything in between, except hotel reservations in both Lisbon and Copenhagen, and a cheap bike I’m picking up over there, is unknown. I’ve raised my weekly riding pace a bit, averaging closer to 1/5th of what I’ll be riding in Europe, and, of course, without the four full panniers I’ll be hauling up Portuguese hills Week One.
Perfect. All ready to go.
Enjoy your own Summer vacations, folks, short or long, existent or non-existent, planned or unplanned. Especially unplanned. At least figuratively, let’s all get lost together.