Bike Touring Special: Pedaling Through The Time Of Your Life

IMG_2561Note: This is the first of an eight-part weekly series celebrating the joys of long-distance bike touring.

Whenever I’m driving and I pass a touring cyclist on a highway, I wait til I get past them, then lay on the horn and pump my fist out the window. I do this because I know they are having the time of their lives.

I know this because I rode my bicycle across the U.S. with a good friend a few years ago and it was one of the biggest, best things I’ve ever done. I would mostly consider myself a rock climber, and I love being in the mountains, but when my friend asked if I would like to bicycle from the Pacific to the Atlantic, I said yes.

I figured I knew how to suffer (mountaineering), I knew how to live fairly simply (backpacking), and I knew how to ride my bike and fix most things on it (year-round bike commuting in Denver). How hard could it be? Wouldn’t it be great to have all that time to think? Maybe I’d write a book, with all those amazing epiphanies that would come to me during our long days on the road.

How hard could it be? It ended up being pretty hard. I got sick during the first week and woke up every night with a hacking cough for 10 days. We averaged 70 miles a day with 50-pound BOB trailers behind our bikes, at about 11 mph. My ass hurt, my arches hurt, my fingers went numb, hell, my neck got tired of holding my helmeted head up. I had never been to Texas before we crossed the New Mexico-Texas border on Day 17. Then we spent 18 days pedaling across the state, with one rest day. One day, we spent 11 hours pedaling into a constant 30 mph headwind. We covered 55 miles.

I really don’t know what the best way to train for a two-month self-supported bike tour is when you have a full-time job, but I didn’t do it. Were I to do it again, I would train by doing a three-week self-supported bike tour to get in proper shape for my two-month self-supported bike tour. You start, and your desk-softened body can’t help but rebel against being hunched over a pair of handlebars for eight hours a day. You ache, and you feel like you have to get off your bike every half-hour to straighten yourself out. But you get used to it — after about three weeks.

Then, you become a machine. You are a pair of legs, a pair of lungs, and a stomach that never fills. We crushed out 70-, 80-, 90-mile days. We ate 6,000 to 8,000 calories every day. I ordered a minimum of two diner breakfasts every morning or made four to five trips through a hotel continental breakfast bar. We ordered three large pizzas and finished them on hotel beds. Tony’s food orders became legendary. At a restaurant in Wickenburg, Arizona, I listened to him order dinner: the French dip sandwich, with the salad bar and french fries. The waitress started to walk away, and he said, “Wait, wait, I also want a full rack of ribs and the two sides.” I was convinced I would end the trip with two giant thighs and a distended belly. Instead, I had a six-pack and two quads so tight they kept my legs from bending past about 90 degrees.

IMG_2320Instead of writing wonderful essays or The Great American Bike Touring Book in my mind as I pedaled somewhat heroically across this great country of ours, I:

1) thought about food
2) did rough mathematical equations (I didn’t have a bike computer) to determine how far it was to the next town so I could reward myself with either junk food from a convenience store or pancakes.
3) talked to cows grazing on the roadsides
4) made up new lyrics to Golden Age hip hop songs I have memorized
5) yelled the new lyrics at cows grazing on the roadsides
6) thought about sex

This was more than a little disappointing. I envisioned myself being some sort of John Muir on a bicycle, but I basically devolved into a sort of caveman eternally pedaling with a fixation on the bottom level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Probably thousands of people have bicycled across the United States, raising money for causes (we did) or just doing it for the hell of it, biking alone or in big groups, with fully loaded bikes or supported by someone following with a van. We met dozens of people on the same route we were on, going the same direction, or the opposite. Everybody starts the trip for different reasons, and I would bet everybody’s reasons change before they finish.

All the weekend days I spend in the mountains, alpine starts, hard routes I push myself on — those are little stories. This bike tour? That was a big story, for me. I think the sign of a true perspective-changing experience is when you get back and people ask how your trip was and you don’t know how to answer because it would take you 30 minutes to get started. That’s what I did, anyway, when I got back. What I should have said was, “It was the time of my life.”


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{ 20 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Jim Bartasavich

    I LOVE this so much. Thank you for sharing it.
    I did the same thing 10 years ago. It still is the best thing I have ever done.
    Your recap captures the experience perfectly & exactly mirrors our trip:
    The BOB trailers, the brutal head winds, 3 weeks in Texas, Wickenburg!, starting naively & evolving into a machine, …
    Looking forward to the remainder of the series.

  • Michelle

    Love it! Touring is amazing. I suggest people start by doing it in their own Province/State. Really, how often have you seen places outside your own City by bike. Even if you are a cyclist, touring is a whole different level. Life slows down (no Strava, no intervals), you give bugs and things you find in your tent names, you talk to other wildlife and learn to appreciate simple things like..bathing in a stream, cold beer from a small store in Nowheresville, early morning coffee with the early birds….I could go on.

  • Katherine

    Oh my gosh, so true on the thinking front. I did a 3,300-mile road ride from California to Georgia and would sometimes spend all 80 miles of a day thinking, “Fruuuuuit Loooops.”

    I was half expecting to be so chock-full of phenomenal, insightful, funny stories when I returned, that I’d be set as a freelance writer for a little while.

    But, alas, nope. Fruit Loops.

  • Michael Pearlman

    I haven’t done it, but know it falls into the category of “life-changing experiences that words can’t fully do justice to unless you’ve experienced it.”

    Great piece.

  • Jim

    I rode across Canada in 1981. It took us three months. I remember stuff from virtually every day of that trip! And this article captures the essence of long distance bicycle touring so well. Yes, I would agree! The time of my life!

  • S.L.

    I remember being young and poor and bike touring. Stuff like $1 for a dozen stale donuts on sale seemed like a great idea, especially combined with 2 liters of off brand cola. We experienced elation and depression in the space of a couple hours, fueled on fat, white sugar, caffeine and high fructose corn syrup. (Almost forgot, we crossed the continental divide at nearly 11,000 feet fueled on the aforementioned diet atrocities. Nothing like a 4-hour climb on a stale cake donuts.

    We hit the Western Sizzlin’ buffet in Durango for breakfast, and ate till they served the lunch buffet, then ate some more. But hey, it was $6!

    Bike touring also can make or break relationships and friendships. Nothing like taking a wrong turn on some obscure rural road in 100F degree heat to test your relationship.

    Great story. Look forward to the rest of the series!

  • John

    This is the most apt description I’ve ever read. I rode cross country last summer and you described it PERFECTLY. I just laughed out loud at work when I read the list of things you thought about, I can definitely relate.

  • Murph

    I did a bike tour once, in 1972. For the month of May, senior year in a private high school, we were given the choice of a) going to classes, or b) pick some project to do. Not exactly a Ginger vs. May Ann kind of choice, and when a fellow senior asked me to join him on a bike trip thru New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, I didn’t even think about it.

    Being stupid, totally clueless kids, we didn’t realize that the beginning of May in NB/NS can be a bit ugly, and my dad was wondering what he was doing when he dropped us off in the middle of nowhere. Not to mention, we had no idea what we were doing and had bare bones equipment. Riding in cutoffs and sneakers on bikes not really meant for touring, we didn’t know any better, so it really didn’t matter.

    The one thing that still amazes me is how great we got at scamming free places to stay. Salvation Army came thru more than once, and were pretty scary places for suburban 18-year-olds. At one hostel, we got a tip from a guest about a guy in Moncton that took in wayward travellers, so when we got to Moncton and found no one there, we just walked in and stayed over. Churches sometimes had a building we could sleep in. Waking up to snow one morning, we thumbed, got a ride, and the guy said if we rode thru Truro to look him up – you bet we did about a week later. Still remember his last name – Horner. All we did was ask, and people very often wanted to help. Again, it still amazes me what we did, especially as shy as I was then.

    Looking forward to hearing more.

  • Randy Garmon

    I agree that bike touring is a great way to travel, but if I may offer a suggestion … slow down. Try averaging 50 to 60 mile days. Then the need to be “a machine” is lessened. While being able to say you rode from ocean-to-ocean is very satisfying, there are no trophies. Take it slower and go the total distances your time-allotment allows rather than coast-to-coast. Also, you won’t have to train as hard prior to leaving on your trek. Bike touring should be joyful, not physically destructive.

  • Jason

    Couldn’t agree more. I’d also add that when I did my tour I met some of the nicest most hospitable people around. People that, on any given day, I’d probably never have cause or time to interact with. But when you’re hauling 40+lbs of gear around on a bike, and therefore not always in the biggest of hurries, you find the time to get to know folks. Best place to show up as a bike tourer is Crested Butte….many free drinks from the locals.

    I also found myself having very long, in depth conversations (frequently ending up in shouting obscenities ) at the wind. West to east seems the better path than east to west: lesson learned the hard way!

    • Jim Bartasavich

      The replies are so great to. Like a recovery group. They are making me think so much & remember so much:

      Totally agree about the kindness of strangers. Each day had something to re-affirm your faith in humanity. Something about suffering on a bike opens you up to other people & garners their curiosity (how to maintain that in regular life?). We would stop @ a bakery & leave with more free cookies, bread & water than we could comfortably carry.

      And the wind….We had days we averaged 25 mph. But then other 100 mile days averaging less than 10 mph. Around Marfa, Texas we almost had a meltdown. Ride 100 yds. Walk 100 yds. Literally also cursing at the wind. You’d get off your bike feeling like the loser of a heavyweight bout.

      One final thought: a trip like this can sure test your friendships/relationships. BUT if you survive together- it is a bond that can never be broken.

      (There are many shorter tours too if cross country seems impossible: The Pittsburgh, PA rails to trails to Wash DC is a GREAT primer)

  • Jim Sayer

    That was a really fantastic summary of the long-distance bike travel experience. BTW, one great way to train for the long-distance tour (if you don’t have time for a 3-wk tour) is to do a series of bike overnights — I work at Adventure Cycling Association and we have a website (www.bikeovernights.org) with dozens of stories and lots of tips on every kind of overnight trip — cheap, luxe, dirt, paved, trail, short, long, with family or friends, solo.

  • Ken

    Totally agree! Took an awesome bike tour around the perimeter of Lake Michigan several years back and think about it all the time. For those looking for a great tour in the US, I highly recommend this. The west coast of lower Michigan and riding through the Upper peninsula are simply awesome.

  • Neil

    I rode my bike from Vancouver to Calgary.

    Talking to yourself become normal. I was yelling inspirational slogans at myself in a voice that bastardized Schwarzenegger.

    Still my favourite adventure.

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