Note: 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.
Instead 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.”