Two Wheels to Freedom Part I: Thoughts on Bike-Touring

by A Manly Guest Contributor on September 10, 2010 · 31 comments

in Health & Sports

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Bryan Schatz.

I glanced back and there was my long-haired friend Dan just behind me, pedaling like a madman up yet another endless hill. His face was red with fury, sweat dripping onto the handle bars and his eyes fixated on the white painted shoulder line separating us from the speeding maniacs that frequented this road: Pacific Coast Highway in California. The false summits had become the source of too much agony over the past few days and now he didn’t dare look more than five feet ahead of him. Our legs were constantly cramped, our bodies sun burnt and sore, and we’d forgotten to apply the Chamey Butter to our punished asses almost every morning.

This is what bike touring means: It means adding a rack or trailer to your bike, stuffing two panniers to the brim with food, water, clothes, jackets, equipment, books, maps, a sleeping bag, a tent…maybe more. And then lugging all of that heavy crap for hundreds of miles, over mountains and through rain, in sweltering heat and occasionally amidst clouds of miserable biting insects. Half the time—depending on your style and budget—you’ll bear this all day, only to fall from exhaustion to the side of the road where, when the sun goes down, you will be blessed with a fitful sleep. Some of your nights are accompanied by harsh winds that push the rain through the seams of your tent, coating your body as if in the line of a stuttering sprinkler system.

Sound fun? It is…tremendously so.

Bike touring has a way of bringing out just about every emotion one can have, and, in the comfort of its relative solitude, we are compelled to act those emotions out. I’ve screamed with joy when the wind in my hair on a fierce downhill made me feel as if I was actually flying rather than riding a bicycle. I’ve also cursed my bike (kicking it and calling it harsh, undeserved names) and all of my surroundings, especially hills and the natural weather phenomenon: wind. There is quite literally no escape from whatever punishment your surroundings decide to impose on you. But that is also part of the beauty of this form of travel; you have to rely on yourself to get you through each day.

There exists a certain euphoria that accompanies the misery of physical exertion, and though it is not something I fully understand, I have come to cherish and even crave it.

Despite the hardships, journeys atop bicycles are immensely enjoyable. They allow you to travel at a moderate rate. Stops at look-out points and roadside stands become easily permitted, contrary to the experience of traveling via cars and buses. And bike-touring makes the possibility of cultural exchange in foreign regions of the world significantly more accessible.

There are several different ways to properly execute a bike tour. The differences will generally be seen in the style and the focus of each individual, as well as available funds for the trip. And by “properly,” I mean that basically anything goes.

The Dirt Bags

If you’ll recall my long-haired friend who dared not divert his focus from the road’s dividing line, well, the trip that was undertaken with him was one of a “dirt bag” status. We were not avid cyclists; we lacked muscular legs, bikes with gears, rocket ship-caliber aerodynamic helmets, a change of clothes and most notably, we slept in the dirt when we were too tired to continue. Trips of this nature are undertaken by those with few options or financial resources. They are generally extremely fun, full of misadventure, injury and discomfort, and may also be referred to as “stupid” by others. Personally, they are my favorite.

The Middle Ground

Occasionally, when one steps up financially in the world, no matter how insignificantly, we have a tendency to appreciate nicer things and more comfortable accommodations. The Middle Ground bike riders will probably have bicycles that are meant for touring. That means they will be equipped with functioning gears, nice components, or at the very least, an extensive tune-up before the trip’s commencement. While their limited budget may reduce the quality of accommodations, they will at least have tents and sleeping pads. They will make their nightly abodes in official campgrounds (which they will actually pay for) and on occasion, a cheap hotel.

In Cycling Heaven

This last style, high in the echelons of cycling paradise, is one that I’ve personally yet to experience, though that day will come I am sure. The individual partaking in this version of bike-touring will have sufficient funds for quality equipment, decent food, and will make their accommodations in comfortable hotels and bed and breakfasts. In some locations throughout the world (such as New Zealand and France) tours such as these are available for purchase, in which you can be driven to the most scenic of countryside highways or dirt trails to be let out for the ride and at a later time, picked up at the end of the ride to be taken out to a nice lunch.

One thing that should be clear is that regardless of the way you decide to bike-tour, you will be challenged, you will almost assuredly see amazing sights, and, unless you despise cycling to begin with, you will have a lot of fun.

In Part II, I’ll cover the specifics of what kind of gear you’ll need on a bike tour. But before you start dreaming up a bike tour of your own, it’s important that you be made privy to one other rather unfortunate possibility of this form of travel. A problem that attends only some of us, apparently, as  my long-haired friend was unaffected by it:

We had been on the road for six days at this point, already two days late and getting close to finishing the whole thing. Sitting on that seat for so long carried with it other difficulties as well, however. It made certain things…well… difficult. I slumped into a chair after trying to use the bathroom, feeling dejected and depressed. “No luck,” I muttered.

My friend just sort of stared at me, and for several moments he remained silent and without expression; no sympathy, no feeling, nothing. Finally he spoke, “Well I’m going to go crap out my entire upper torso. I’ll be back after I’ve shattered some porcelain. “Here,” he threw a dollar on the table, “Drink another coffee.” And then he got up and left.

Read Part 2: Gearing Up For a Bike Tour

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brian September 10, 2010 at 1:08 am

Before you head out of a bike ride across where ever you should read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

2 Luis September 10, 2010 at 1:23 am

Haha, I loved that last anecdote. Fair Warning. Will eagerly await the next installment.

3 Austin Franke September 10, 2010 at 2:03 am

In the summer of 2008 I went with a friend of mine and biked through Germany. We packed up our touring bikes and flew standby to Frankfurt, took a train out to the Rhine with the bikes still in the box, assembled them at the train station, and rode off along the river. A week later we were in Trier, Germany and we took the train down south and biked the whole way through Bavaria to Salzberg, Austria. Stayed at campgrounds, guesthouses, and hostels along the way and ate at cafe’s and picked up groceries as we went. Best trip I’ve ever done! Hoping to do the same thing across Japan next spring!

4 Seph Mason September 10, 2010 at 2:13 am

I can’t tell you how often this blog EXACTLY compliments what’s going on in my life. Me and 3 of my friends just started planning our cross country bike trip from san diego to long island over next spring. I can’t wait to read the next installment!

5 Martin September 10, 2010 at 2:19 am

Fun post! Nice work, Bryan

6 Adventure-Some Matthew September 10, 2010 at 8:22 am

I’ve talked to my wife about a cross-US bike ride. She’s not quite thrilled about the idea, seeing as she doesn’t care much for bike-riding. If I can find some friends who are up for it, she might prefer to bet the follow-vehicle.

Loved reading this article and can’t wait for the next installment!

7 Mike-On-A-Bike September 10, 2010 at 8:52 am

Last year I loaded up my bike with 50 lbs. of gear and rode from Maryland to Nebraska and my sister’s house.
The rough roads, the traffic, the rain, the heat, the falling-into-bed/hammock-exhausted most every night were more than made up for by the people you meet on the way (good folks all), the chest-busting feeling you get heading out at dawns early light for a day of new and beautiful things and just the sheer ADVENTURE of the thing!
I’m in my 60′s and the ol’ bod isn’t what it used to be but next year I’ll load up again and it’s “one last time into the breach” – maybe I’ll make it all the way across the country this time.

8 Bob September 10, 2010 at 9:38 am

Personally I don’t have enough free time to spend any of it in agony and staring at white line all day, I’ll keep my motorcycle.

9 Bob September 10, 2010 at 9:48 am

Another good reference, Riding with the Blue Moth, by Bill Hancock.

10 William Hewitt September 10, 2010 at 10:08 am

After I am done with school I plan on doing a cross-country bike ride through hells canyon, in Idaho.

11 turling September 10, 2010 at 10:34 am

The last paragraph, now that’s a true friend.

12 Evan September 10, 2010 at 10:45 am

When I was 15 years old my dads Christmas gift to me was taking me on a bike tour across a good chunk of Europe. I had mixed feelings; I wanted to travel, but had never really been an avid biker, and I wasn’t sure how I would cope with nearly a month of riding 5+ hours a day.
We travelled to London, England at the beginning of August with our bikes in a box. We assembled them at a train station just outside the city and biked to the English Channel that day. We hadn’t slept in 36 hours, but we managed to get a couple hours on the ferry to Dieppe. Our real adventure started there, passing through every little town in France, and bigger ones such as Versaille, Paris, and Nice. After a week in France we made our way into Italy. We went through Florence, Rome, and into the most gruelling leg of the ride: the tuscany. We’d climb hills for hours. There was nothing like going down the other side at 70 km for 20 minutes, passing cars along the way. We eventually made it to Brindisi (with the help of a few trains), a coastal town in which we took a ferry to Petra, Greece. From there it was a cycle to Athens and back home.
Along the way we camped in fields, peoples backyards, hostels, got chased by numerous dogs and kicked off a few trains. We went with no plan but a return ticket from Athens. I don’t think there was a better way I could’ve been exposed to European culture for the first time and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

13 chip September 10, 2010 at 11:19 am

Misery? Suffering? hardship? 3700 miles into a round-the-US tour as a self supported tourist i have yet to experience these things. Yes, I have had had some challenging days but I am always amazed at how ones persons death march is another persons sunny day. One of my favirote stretched was highway 50 through Nevada “The lonliest road in America” while some people talked about the long distances between services and having to pack extra water, i remember friendly people, gorgeous desert landscapes, City pools in every town and city parks with free camping.

I talk to people about my trip and sometimes they ask “What is the most scared you’ve been, the most miserable, the wierdest thing you’ve seen?” and they always seem disappointed when I report that I haven’t been particularly scared or miserable and that the people I’ve met have been kind and good-hearted.

I’m doing my tour maybe a half-step above dirt bag status, but a little preparation and maintanence can eliminate many of the misadventures and discomfort – unless you are into that sort of thing. Just becuase you are poor doesn’t mean you have to be dumb. Get your bike adjusted to fit you, spend a little on a good saddle, and some basic tune up gear, learn to rig a tarp or get a good tent. use services like “couch surfing” or “warm showers” for free and low cost places to stay.

Like many of the other comments have said, this tour has been one of the best experiences of my life. If you want to make it a suffer fest you certainly can, but for me, an easy day of spinning up the continental divide (monarch pass is 11,312 feet above sea level) followed by a blazing fast downhill run, a great evening with a new friend I met through a social networking site, a home cooked meal, and a guestroom or a secure backyard to camp in, beats ‘dirtbagging” any day.

14 MasterRanger September 10, 2010 at 11:23 am

There is an easier, less life-threatening, less traffic-clogging way:

http://www.harley-davidson.com

15 Chris Kavanaugh September 10, 2010 at 12:13 pm

The author managed a whole introductory sentence before bewailing the “speeding maniacs.” In rebuttal, living near the PCH, I am fed up with Lance Armstrong wannabees blowing red lights, cutting across lanes, riding in pairs blocking traffic flow and the penultimate; a swarm of bicyclists doing all the above en mass. Challenge this rude and dangerous behavior; and i have as PEDESTRIAN in a crosswalk and there is some self righteous excuse of ‘we’re doing something healthy.’ Shwinn VS SUV is NOT healthy.
I could expand this to off road bicyclists who think 1200 lb horses rearing are mere course obstacles and the motorised columns of the Reconquista on our sidewalks.
In summation: Bicycling is a wonderfull activity; just do not assume the world was tailored for it alone.

16 As A September 10, 2010 at 1:19 pm

“In summation: Bicycling is a wonderfull activity; just do not assume the world was tailored for it alone.”

As a historical footnote, most city roads in america were actually greatly improved by the lobbying of ‘Wheelman’s unions’, aka bicycle riders. Smoother pavement and better signaling followed. Unfortunately, it also paved the way (literally) for the widespread adoption of the automobile in later decaded (because as we know, capacity enhancement yields increased usage). Bikes don’t ride on the interstate, have your peace there and deal with it everywhere else.

P.s. With a BOB trailer and a bit of padding, your canine friend can be trained to run/ride along with you on even long journeys.

17 Chris Kavanaugh September 10, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Those paved roads are lined with trees and perhaps still city fountains created for horses. Road width was largely determined by roman engineers to move legions around by marching. They improved on ancient traderoutes for moving rucksacks of flint nodules themselves tracing now extinct fauna migration routes. We could take this to it’s penultimate argument and free the L.A. zoo elephants to wander PCH like their imperial elephant ancestors. That would quickly seperate the men from the boys; self centered and the polite regardless of chosen mode of transport.

18 Bryan Schatz September 10, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Evan (and others) – Your trip through Europe sounds amazing. It’s great hearing about other individual’s bike trips.

Chip- I’m impressed that after 3700 miles you haven’t had any hardship…that is a tremendous feat. An 11,000-foot pass would have me bathed in sweat any day. You are right, networks such as “couch surfing” and “hot shower” are excellent resources to take advantage of.

Chris – You make a really good point. It does seem that often cyclists feel they have a right to be in the middle of the road, riding side by side, etc…thus endangering others. My only response to this is that it seems to me that many who don’t ride frequently do not realize just how small (or non-existent) a bike lane may be, making it impossible at times to not be in the road to some degree. Also, you are correct in that most drivers are not speeding maniacs. However, on several occasions–throughout Big Sur in particular–I’ve seen people speed around slower vehicles, driving on the opposite side of the road on completely blind corners. My friend was inches away from being taken out by one such incident on our trip…Had we been in a car, it would have been a pretty gruesome head-on collision. And that sort of driving certainly is not rare on that stretch of highway.

19 Chris Kavanaugh September 10, 2010 at 2:58 pm

A.B. Banjo Patterson wrote a hilarious poem about the bicycle.
Pundits once proclaimed bicycles the next great mode of transportation and the swiss and I.R.A. used them for fast,mobile flying columns.People can barely walk in public without crashing into one anotherHorseback,bike or car; a little courtesy and manlyness is lost on all. I wont even mention boaters who discouraged my career in the Coast Guard.

20 Kevin K September 10, 2010 at 5:51 pm

@Austin I bike toured across Japan for 10 weeks in 2007. It was one of the best experiences of my life. There is no comparison to the little things you see while biking, we went to places that few foreigners get to see.

If you want any advice about your trip to Japan let me know. Japan is a great place to bike friendly people, decent roads, no crime to speak of. You will enjoy your trip.

21 Ryan September 10, 2010 at 9:31 pm

I’ve only recently started cycling so this type of ride does not sound like a fun. I have no idea how you can sit on the saddle so long. After an hour I am ready to get off the bike. Even with the cycling shorts it’s rough on your taint.

It is my understanding that bicycles have the same rights on the roads as cars. I try to avoid spending much time on the roads. There have been several people on bikes killed locally. Pretty scary.

22 jon September 11, 2010 at 4:25 pm
23 James September 12, 2010 at 3:36 am

In most states cyclist have the same right to be on the road as cars in lack of a proper bike lane, and some states even allow more rights to cyclist who can ride through stop signs and slow at lights (being a clear intersection, of course). Momentum is the name of the game when riding the streets on a bike, and stopping at every intersection is superfluous. Saying that, any rider who throws themselves into a busy intersection has no one to blame but themselves for causing an accident, and riding more than 2 abreast is unnecessary, it’s a bike ride not social hour. Though, next time I ride to work if every car gave me my mandated 3 feet of clearance while passing I might consider moving closer to the shoulder. Until then, we share the road. Fair?
And, Harley’s do look nice, but my legs look better.

24 Martin September 12, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Chip – I can only say that I think you completely, utterly and entirely missed the author’s point.

25 Jeff September 12, 2010 at 10:42 pm

The touring cyclist is a completely different animal than the road-rider. Different equipment, different routes, different mindset, different goals.

I’ve done my miles along the California coast. Some of the best vacations I can remember. The feeling of freedom alone is restorative, not to mention self-sufficiency, problem-solving and appreciation of nature at a level one cannot attain at 65 mph.

You’ll like it.

26 Austin September 12, 2010 at 11:44 pm

Kevin K,

Where did you go in Japan? I’m teaching English in South Korea right now and my plan is to take the ferry from Busan to Fukuoka and bike to Tokyo. Any recommendations or time estimates? Budget perhaps?

27 Kevin K September 13, 2010 at 11:50 am

@Austin

So we biked from Narita north to Nikko, then north again to Aizu Wakiamatsu then West to Nigata and South along the coast finally to Nagano.

We did not end up biking through any of the major cities, opting instead to have hotels hold our bikes for us outside the city, and enjoying Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo without the hassle of a bicycle. We were fully loaded touring, camping about 2/3 of the time. There are many campgrounds open in the Summer, but many of them close in early fall, so we squatted on the closed campgrounds sometimes. Hotels were always about $30+ per night.

Nikko is an awesome ancient city with lots of history to it, worth a trip if you make it that far north. The best biking we had was along the west coast from Nigata south, but I would imagine the biking is similar along the south-west coast. If you are bringing camping gear I would highly suggest camping there are lots of sites. There is an atlas published for motorcycle tourers with incredibly detailed information about camping and pretty much every convience store in Japan. If you can get your hands on a copy, do. Even if you don’t read Japanese it is helpful.

Enjoy your trip Japan is an awesome place to bike! And when you are in Tokyo don’t mis a ramen shop called Ramen Jiro. Literally the best food I have ever eaten. It’s just a small shack that serves Japanese businessmen lunch but it is world famous among foodies for having the best noodles on earth.

28 Briana September 13, 2010 at 11:53 am

I’m in the process of an epic journey across Eastern Europe, 1,200 km down and only a few hundred remain until we reach our destination in Romania. On the constipation factor I feel you, Bryan, but at least be thankful for the availability of real coffee and toilets in California. In the boonies of Romania I am afraid all I have are Nescafe and squatters.

29 Bryan Schatz September 13, 2010 at 2:12 pm

@Kevin K – That’s pretty cool to hear that camping is widely available and the hotels are only around $30 a night over there. I’ve always heard about how tremendously expensive Japan is, but that makes it seem far more accessible. Austin – Have fun, sounds like a great plan.

@Briana – My sincerest condolences to your current constipation condition. Make that Nescafe as muddy as you can! Eastern Europe would be a fun place to tour, sounds like you are enjoying it.

30 Chris de Vidal September 14, 2010 at 9:12 am

“Well I’m going to go crap out my entire upper torso. I’ll be back after I’ve shattered some porcelain.”

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

31 ganesha September 14, 2010 at 7:44 pm

la bicicleta es una PASION !!

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