It seems that for the length of time I’ve been out pedaling around, 64 days now and the end nowhere in sight, there’s precious little information here about actual bike touring. That’s a shame because one purpose of these posts is to encourage people to get out and camp or tour on their bikes, even if only for a weekend.
Oddly, the pandemic and the wildfires sweeping the West Coast have made bike touring easier in some important ways. And although I don’t have any reference points since this is the first time I’ve ever done it, people seem more accepting and friendly than they might have been during normal times.
I’d say the first two things that smacked me in the face when I started touring, or lifing as I now call it, were fitness and mobility. The fitness you need to ride a bike day in and day out loaded down with junk is very different from the fitness you need to smash on the Donut Ride, and even more different from the fitness you need to smash on social media.
Bike touring is flat out slow but not correspondingly easy. If I average 10 mph I’m thoroughly satisfied, which brings me to a key point. Speed is calculated by dividing distance by time. Time is measured from when you leave until when you arrive. There’s no such thing as “moving time,” or “stopped time,” those conveniently fake measurements used to make it look like you’re going faster than you actually are. To really grasp bike touring you have to really calculate your miles per hour.
It’s important because if you use the fake measurements of “stopping time” and “riding time,” you’ll have a lot of difficulty figuring out how long it’s going to take to get anywhere, and unlike recreational riding, bike touring is all about getting to a place so that you can pitch a tent, cook dinner, and go to sleep. You’ll also find that 10 mph is pretty darned fast when you’re fully loaded and stopping multiple times. Finally, recognizing that you’re a slowpoke will help rid you of any racing/speedster delusions you may be harboring from your racing days.
You’re slow, and you’re probably old af, too. Get over it.
Speaking of old gets us to the next big issue in bike touring, which is mobility. If you are bike touring with a tent and cooking at campsites, your body will face flexibility issues unlike any you’ve experienced since you were a kid. Squatting down, sitting cross-legged, hunching yourself into and out of the tent over and over, bending, reaching, and of course the ultimate yoga pose of “Taking Off All Clothes And Putting On Others In The Tiny Tent” will completely reconfigure your spine.
These twin shocks to the system, shocks of fitness and shocks of mobility, will take a while to adapt to. But the amazingly wonderful thing is that your body will mostly work out the kinks. It helps if you have a comfy sleeping pad, but the basic twisting and squatting and reaching and bending will develop flexibility you never knew you had, mostly because you never had it.
Long-term bike touring also helps your circulation because in the morning it’s generally cold and you freeze. It’s uncomfortable, but over time your circulatory system adapts, sending new capillaries to your extremities, and forcing your body to produce more heat rather than being wholly dependent on indoor air modulation and clothing. Bonus point? This burns a fuck-ton of calories. It also ends conditions like cold feet.
When I started my trip I had to wear heavy wool socks at night even in warm and cozy Southern California. I mostly quit wearing them once I reached the Cascades, even though the mornings are much, much colder. But don’t get too carried away: Your warm sleeping bag on a chilly morning will always be a virtually irresistible magnet.
One thing I’ve avoided is any food other than my own. Exceptions abound, of course. I eat ice cream and drink mile almost every day; I’ve had a killer burger at the Acme Diner; when my cousin Hilary whipped up her signature enchiladas, I dove in head-first. In the main, though, I make breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
This keeps things cheap and it allows me to eat extraordinarily well, which brings me to my main food point: Your bike tour will be grim if you can’t cook great camp food, and it will be a joy if you have delicious food to look forward to every single night. And great camp food doesn’t mean fancy. It means wholesome, fresh, and hearty. Cooking your own food also decreases your dependence on the rest of the world. As long as you can find an onion, a garlic clove, a couple of mushrooms, a tomato, and a slice of chicken/pork/beef, you will eat great.
The experience of bike touring up the coast from Los Angeles has been instructive, too, especially since I began it in July, peak of summer travel, and in the middle of the pandemic, peak of people want to GTF out of town. In sum, Highway 1 sucked. There were virtually no stretches of this scenic byway where I wasn’t slammed up against the edge of the road rubbing shoulders with RVs, trucks, and cars.
When PCH ran out and US 101 kicked in, things got even worse. The coast traffic between LA and Astoria, Oregon was indistinguishable from either endpoint. Riding in Astoria was identical to riding in Malibu, and despite the encomiums about the Oregon coast, it’s no prettier than California’s, and not any less crowded.
Getting off the 101 and taking the back roads from Astoria into Washington, and from there up to the border, was a wholly different experience. Drivers were rarely rude. Many gave extra space when they passed. The scenery was bucolic, tranquil, gorgeous, and these traits continued as I made my way over Washington Pass, heading southward back towards Oregon and California.
Which isn’t to say that the coastal route sucks. I’ve ridden the section from San Jose to LA five times, always in October, and it has been lightly trafficked and gorgeous, so it’s probably just a matter of doing it in summer and during the covids. On the other hand, big chunks of Oregon and Washington are going to be hard traveling if you try them once the sun goes away and the rainy season-fall-winter weather kick in.
And yes, the big highways have been jammed with crap haulers and nasty cagers, but the back roads have not. Something about the pandemic has made people seek the outdoors, but only the outdoors they know. Strange parts are still lightly visited.
I could go on, and probably will, but the only other major things left are closely interrelated, weather and gear. Bottom line: Less is of course more.