September 10, 2010

Health & Sports

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

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


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