Winter Tips For Summer Bicycle Trips: Part 1

When winter closes in, all but the most ardent of cyclists pack their wheels away, and await the return of warmer days. Of course, winter is no reason to stop cycling for fun or recreation: we’ve provided tips on winter riding here, here and here. But even if you do continue riding, winter is an excellent time to start planning a summer bicycle trip. Given my own experience planning for, and undertaking, extended trips by bicycle, I thought I would offer a two-part series on how to plan for that trip you’ve always wanted to take.

Three summers ago, I rode my bike 3,800 miles from Newport News, Virginia, to San Francisco, California. Along the way, I met a surprising number of people who, upon hearing about the trip, told me they had always dreamt of doing something like that, but had never had the time. So here’s the deal: I offer the tips, advice and encouragement, and you find the time to make the trip a reality!The first step in planning a bike trip is to decide what you want to get out of it. Are you looking to unwind and enjoy the scenery? To learn more about yourself? To test your limits? The answer to these questions will likely determine the duration and style of your trip. Bicycle trips can be anything from multi-year, around-the-world odysseys, to one-day, around-the-county excursions. Be honest with yourself and choose a length of trip that suits your goals and expectations. For instance, I went all the way across the country because I loved the idea of being able to point to a map of the United States, and know that I covered all that ground with just the power of my legs and lungs.

There are several ways to go about doing a trip. In my case, I stayed in campgrounds and people's yards (you'd be amazed how many people will invite you in for dinner, do your laundry, and otherwise overwhelm you with generosity) 90% of the time. Other people prefer to do a "credit card tour"--staying exclusively in hotels, motels and lodges along the way. In either case, it is always a good idea to be prepared to camp in the event you are unable to reach accommodations before nightfall; however, full-on camping requires more gear and, therefore, a heavier load to carry. The answer to the hotel versus camping debate will depend on your goals, fitness level and experience.

Next, you want to pick a route. The Adventure Cycling Association puts out fantastic maps for numerous routes around the country. I selected the TransAmerica Trail, but chances are, they have a map for the route you want to do. The great thing about their maps is that they are waterproof; designed specifically for cyclists; provide turn-by-turn directions; and show where gas stations, campgrounds and other essential services can be found along the route. Even if you select your own route and maps, Adventure Cycling is a great starting point, and offers lots of other great information. Also, all their map sets explain the ideal time of year to start a particular route. Another great source of information is KenKifer.com; there you can learn more about bicycle touring, commuting, culture and humor.

Once you know where you are going to ride, for how long, and for what reasons, you can start thinking about the really exciting stuff: selecting a bicycle, purchasing gear, and training.

Selecting a Bicycle and Gear

People do bike trips on all types of bicycles, from $8,000 racing machines, to $50 Wal-Mart junkers, to recumbents, tandems and everything in between. That said, a good touring bicycle does have certain characteristics. It should:

1) have room for wide tires. On a road bike, that means at least 700 x 28. Mountain bikes typically come with, and certainly have room for, wide, stable tires. For really long tours, Continental Top Touring 2000, and Schwalbe Marathon XR are both popular for their durability and puncture-resistance.

2) have eyelets for, at the very least, a rear rack, and preferably for a front rack as well. Eyelets are essentially holes that allow a rack to be easily and securely attached to the frame. Old Man Mountain, Surly, and Tubus make by far the best racks.

However, if your bike doesn’t have eyelets, don’t fret: many cyclists (including myself) choose to tour with a trailer. The most common trailer is called a B.O.B. (Beast of Burden). This trailer attaches to your bike via a specially designed rear skewer. The advantages of a trailer are that, unlike using saddlebags and a rack, they put very little stress on the rear wheel, reducing the risk of breaking spokes. Also, they can make the bike more stable due to the fact that trailers are usually very low to the ground. However, trailers are also prone to wobbling at high speeds, something that happened to yours truly, causing me to eat it at 25 M.PH. Fortunately, both bike and rider were okay. Whether or not you go with a rack or trailer will depend ultimately on the strength of your rear wheel (again, if you have a racing style wheel, you almost have to go with a trailer). Ortlieb and Arkel make by far the best saddlebags (also called panniers).

3) allow for an upright position. This is essential for safety, enjoying the view, and staying comfortable during long days in the saddle (on my trip, I would typically spend about six hours a day in the saddle). Touring bikes in general are designed with longer wheelbases which, among other things, makes for a stable ride and prevents your heels from striking the panniers.

And speaking of saddles, this is perhaps the most important and, er, intimate piece of equipment. Don't go with the one that feels softest to the touch; those become very painful on long rides. If you are a fan of craftsmanship, the Brooks B-17 is an extremely popular choice. But be warned, these leather saddles do require some time for breaking in, so don't be like me and attempt to break them in during the trip! If you are a man and worried about the dreaded ED, the X-Seat is an unconventional saddle that certainly. . .takes the pressue off!

4) have reliable gears. While frame material, geometry and the like are important, what you are most likely to notice is an unreliable gear set. If possible, go with at least Shimano 105 gears, and ask your local mechanic to show you how to properly adjust them. That said, frame material is a hotly debated topic among touring cyclists. Personally, I think you can’t beat steel for price, comfort and durability, but really any frame material should do just fine. The key is to get out there and ride!

5) come with strong wheels. These days, racing bikes typically come with wheels that have anywhere from 4 to 16 spokes. A good touring wheel will have at least 28 spokes. Even if you use a trailer, a poorly made wheel with not enough spokes will constantly go out of true, so invest the money up front to have a solid, strong wheel. Don't let a bike shop try to sell you the latest carbon fiber hub. When it comes to touring, you are already going to be carrying 20-60 pounds of weight. Spend money on durability, not lightness (besides, you are sure to shed some pounds off your body on the trip!).

Here’s a list of several of my favorite touring bikes:
Surly Cross-Check and Long-Haul Trucker, Co-Motion Americano, Bianchi Volpe, Trek 520 and Cannondale T2000 (Touring 2)

Stay tuned for part two of this series, where I will discuss other gear and training tips, and share some anecdotes from my own trip. Let me know if there are any other aspects of bicycle touring you'd like me to address. Below are several photos of the trip.

See Also: ::Obama Gets a Boost From the Crucial Bicycle Swing Vote, ::Have You Reduced Your Dependence on Cars?, ::'Sustainable Energy in Motion' Bike Tour
, ::Solar Powered Blogging on a Bike Trip, ::Looking For Green America By Bicycle and ::Tour Green Toronto: We Had No Idea

Adhering to custom, we took a photo at each border. As is evident from this picture, we are crossing into Illinois.

Can you guess which state we were entering here? :)

Tags: Biking