If you are looking to take the ultimate, high efficiency, carbon-neutral road trip, then bicycle touring is tailor made for you. In part 1 of this series, I discussed the reasons for doing a trip by bicycle, and made several gear recommendations. In this part, I'd like to address training and safety issues, and tell a few tales from my own cross-country trip.
First of all, bicycle touring is not bicycle racing! Unlike the Tour de France, the success of a bicycle trip is measured, not in distance covered, but rather in distance enjoyed. That said, you are still doing physical activity, and the fitter you are to begin with, the more you will be able to focus on, and therefore enjoy, the view. The key to training for a bike trip is to keep in mind the terrain and distance you will be covering, as well as the weight of your gear. Typically, a touring cyclist will average around 12 MPH, and ride from 3-6 hours a day. Essentially, if you can keep a good, steady pace for long periods of time, then you are fit enough to do a bike tour of any length. Getting to that level of fitness can be done via hiking, swimming, or any sport, for that matter.The real importance of training for a trip is that you be comfortable with and on your bike. Bicycle touring taxes the neck, back and arms more than the quads, for the simple reason that spending six hours hunched over handlebars can tire those muscles! Before the trip, make sure you do several lengthy rides with all your gear. This is essential for getting accustomed to riding with a heavy load, and learning to pack your gear so as to maximize stability (read that: heavy items go at the bottom of your bags, lighter items on top).
I didn't do anything special to prepare for my trip, since my bike happens to be my car and, as a result, I get plenty of saddle time anyway. Still, it's a good idea to begin training two months in advance. Again, don't race: that will merely burn you out and make you less inclined to take the trip in the first place. As long as you get in several rides that are at least as long as the longest distance you intend to cover on the trip, feel comfortable carrying lots of gear, and are otherwise reasonably fit, then you should be fine. Most people find that the first two weeks of a trip are slightly uncomfortable, after which point their bodies adjust. If you are planning a shorter trip, it is obviously more important to start out in peak form than if you are heading out for three months. In my case, I fell ill a month before the start of my trip, and was unable to do much preparation. As a result, the first few weeks were rather uncomfortable, but before long all my focus shifted to the beauty of my surroundings.
One of the biggest concerns people have about touring by bicycle is safety. My parents, for instance, were worried about cars and trucks, as well as strangers I might encounter along the way. One of the great advantages of the Adventure Cycling maps I recommended in part 1 is that they are all based on routes chosen specifically for cyclists; sections that require more attention to traffic are highlighted, and alternatives are provided. Nevertheless, I suggest several safety precautions.
I know no one likes to hear helmet-related horror stories, but I for one would not be writing this article were it not for my helmet. Not that crashes on these kinds of trips are common; after all, you are riding at a slow, steady pace. Nevertheless, anything can happen (I had the misfortune of trying to get into an aerodynamic tuck going down a steep gravel road at 25 MPH with a 60 pound trailer. . .with the result that I became very well acquainted with the gravel). Helmets also keep your head cool in the summer.
The kinds of roads touring cyclists tend to frequent are usually rural. This means that the danger stems from motorists not expecting to see a cyclist on the side of the road. The best way to mitigate this possibility is to use a mirror, either mounted on your helmet or handlebar, so that you have a view of what's going on behind you.
Inevitably, you will find yourself caught out in the dark on the trip, either because you underestimate the distance between towns, have a mechanical problem, or simply want to. I always wore a safety triangle, and my bike was fitted with two bright LED lights. An inexpensive headlight is a good idea as well.
You should be prepared to fix any mechanical problem you might encounter on the road. The most common is obviously a flat tire; before the trip, learn to fix a flat. Additionally, you should know how to adjust gears, replace a snapped brake or shifter cable, lubricate the chain and adjust the headset. A good multi-tool is essential, as are spare tubes, a spare tire, a small bottle of lubricant, a mini-pump, patch kit, tire-iron, spare brake cable, and first-aid kit.
With respect to strangers, I was amazed at the kindness and generosity of all the people I met. People generally trust cyclists. The joke is that we wouldn't steal anything because we don't have any room to carry it! I found that pretty much any time I felt like it, I was able to find someone willing to put me up for the night for free. I never felt unsafe or threatened. Bicycle touring is quite likely the greatest way to truly get to know a place, its people, its customs, its contours. It is an experience unlike any other. If safety is the one thing holding you back, check out one of the many online forums for touring. There you can read other people's experiences, and gain even more tips and encouragement. Some of the best forums are Crazyguyonabike and Bicycletouring101.
Finally, I promised to tell one story from my cross-country trip. This one takes place in Missouri. My friend and I were riding along a country road when we spotted a rather ominous looking cloud heading our way. Before long, the cloud was almost upon us, and it was clear that the cloud was bringing our way rain, hail, thunder and lightning. At that point, we were mildly concerned that our steel bicycles were susceptible to lightning. Unfortunately, we couldn't find any place nearby where we could find shelter. Out of desperation, we spotted what we thought (and really hoped) was a barn off in the distance. So we start sprinting with our bikes across a field while the storm bore down upon us. Half a mile later, we got the barn, behind which there was a house. When the people in the house spotted us, they began shouting "get in the barn!" A minute after we got into the barn, a lightning bolt struck a tree 15 yards from the barn.
When the storm had passed, the owner of the property came out to talk to us. It turned out that he was a former state senator. His attitude towards us was one of. . .friendly disbelief. In any case, he allowed us to spend the night in the barn. In the photo below I am posing with a rather prodigious pile of horse manure next to which I slept. When we woke up in the morning, it was 45 degrees, crisp and clear and beautiful. We hopped back on our bikes and continued pedaling West.
And that's kind of thing that happens almost every day on a bicycle trip: a mixture of adventure, poetry, discovery and relaxation.
If you're still not convinced that bicycle tours are the best way to spend a summer, feel free to ask any questions, or add any comments, below.
See Also: ::Jose Gonzalez To Embark On Green Tour in Spring, ::TreeHugger Picks: Going Green on Tour, ::Jack Johnson's Summer Tour: Good People, Good Music, Good Earth, ::Sustainable Table's Eat Well Guided Tour, ::Fat Tire Bike Tours--and Segway Tours, and ::Mexico City to Build 186 Miles of Bike Paths by 2012