Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Mistakes and Lessons Learned on Bike Tour

Just like with anything else, starting long distance touring can have a steep learning curve.  It is even steeper if you've never really camped before and don't have the right gear.  Earlier this week I bumped into a fellow biker named Christopher who is just getting started and he said my story was inspirational.  Well him being inspired got me thinking back through some of the things I've learned from my experiences touring, and I was inspired to share. Here are some tips that I learned (sometimes the hard way) when I was just starting out, and some that I've learned recently, even after years of experience.

1. Don't settle for crappy gear.

Yeah, we know that you're not going to have any gear, you're just starting out.  Don't make things harder for yourself and try to spend $3000+ dollars on new gear or DIY everything (that you're not even sure how to use yet) and have it break on you, just ask a friend. We all have at least one active friend that has all kinds of gear, and they aren't camping year round, so just ask them to borrow stuff.  Each tour you'll get a nice hand-me-down sleeping bag because someone bought a new one, or a tent at a super cheap price from, or you lucked out by going to a thrift store; and soon enough, you'll be the friend with a bunch of cool gear.

This is my outdoorsy friend Matt.  He was the Cross-fittiest, adventure racering, bike/mountain/hikey guy I knew when I was building my gear.  He loaned me many a gear for many a trip. 
Because you can't build up to this overnight 

It may not look like much, but these are all the basics, the idea is to travel light, right? (Que #2)

2. Don't carry too much (or too little).

Carrying too much is actually inevitable, so accept it, BUT while you're riding, evaluate what works for you and what doesn't.  Don't get caught up in being too light either, especially being new to the game. It's okay to start off heavy because the remedy is easy : ship everything you don't need back to yourself or friends. If you are starting in cold country, and going to hot country, swap out gear at a "pick up" spot which can be a friend's house or a postal service pick up. For small things (under 1 lb), use US Postal Service, and for larger items, use FedEx.  For shipping bikes, you can use for less than $60.

Just please don't carry as much as this guy.

Eventually, you may even look like this guy.  This is Cjell Mone, and he rides the Great Divide Race, and many of the adventure tourers pack ultra light like this because they're riding 200+ miles per day on aggressive terrain. Amazing! Cjell actually yo-yos, where he does the entire 2768 miles, and then turns around and does it again...taking around 2 weeks each way.  Someday...
3. Research your area.

Adventure Cycling maps make it pretty easy for you, but make sure you know your route, alternate routes, where the nearest greyhound is, water sources, food sources, etc. There are so many things that can happen, you want to leave your options open. It's especially important if you're remote or off-road, where you definitely need an accurate odometer.

I collect maps from on the road.  This is one from a local firefighter, and he is giving me advice on route options.  Firefighters are your friends, especially when you are very remote.  They may be the only humans you come into contact with for a few days, and they obviously love wilderness, so they're great companions when you bump into them. They also watch out for us whether you know it or not. Someone out in the back country noticed me biking, and called the man to which the fingers above belong. He followed my bike with  trailer tracks to make sure everything was okay and that I had enough supplies.  I love these people!
If you've never seen an Adventure Cycling Map, here is part of one above, though this portion doesn't give it justice.  This is a section that shows elevation changes.  The maps are geared toward bike friendly long distance touring routes, and include campsites, places to get water, streams, places to get food, local bike shops, hotels, etc. They even have a list of phone numbers to the bike shops, hotels, campsites, local emergency areas for each town that you go through.  Most maps cover around 300-400 miles, and really anyone who lives should have these maps.
4. Become part of a Bike Network.

I recommend using to find a place to stay at the start of your tour.  This site is made up of a cycling network that offers other cyclists hospitality, but the people involved also are a great source of local knowledge and can lead you in the right direction (literally) for starting out. Consider that most times you will start out from a big city, because you will fly/train/bus to a larger hub, and the locals will know the safest way to pick up the ACA routes, and anything weird within a 100 mile radius or more.

This is my good friend Chris.  He hosted us last minute when we were first riding the GDT. We've stayed in contact because our personalities were very similar.  Warmshowers opens up a door to extending your family, and meeting lifelong friends like my buddy Chris and his wife Mary. 
5. Know your body.

We may not all be nutritionists, but you want to listen to what your body needs while you ride. This is an endurance sport, so it's necessary to maintain a diet that will sustain long days. For emergencies, always carry a quick source of sodium like pickle juice, mustard packets, or salty smoked fish.  There is also a powdered food called soylent that has come out which contains all of the nutrients that you need in a day. Also consider the climate that you're in.  For instance, in very hot climates, I eat lots of raw fruits and vegetables as a way to carry extra water, and forwent anything dehydrated (like raisins or granola).

6. Know your tools, and use them regularly.

Multitool, pump, extra spokes, etc. Make sure you have some basic tools and replacement parts for anything that could prevent you from biking, but can be fixed well enough to get you to a bike shop. Tighten all of your bolts, panniers, etc., check your tire pressure, and do a quick look-over your bike daily, once before you head out, and once when you get to where you need to be. Carry extra bolts. Carry zip ties, duct tape, and velcro straps of various sizes in case everything above turns into a worst case scenario.

Be like Neva, this is her looking my bike over before we leave.
7. Always carry sunscreen.

I use Super Salve, which is handmade by Denise in Silver City, NM.  It's all natural, and uses titanium dioxide as a natural barrier for protection.  Also, it smells awesome, isn't greasy, and doesn't leave you bright white and looking like a ghost.

Because you will get sun, and lots of it. Thanks to Super Salve, I don't get burned though!

8. Trailers and accessories

I've only been stranded once out of my 7+ years of touring and it was last year. I was given a trailer to test, and I had tested it about 100+ miles off-road locally in Texas, but not on any 4x4 trails.  The trailer busts a spoke the moment we get to a semi aggressive portion of the GDT. It was because I did not go over the trailer with the same eye that I go over my bike. The wheel had only 16 spokes, while my bike wheels have 40 spokes, and I wouldn't ride with much less.

If you're going to carry a trailer, make sure you consider everything that you would on a bike that would make it tour-ready. Can it handle the bumps (wheels, tires, hitch articulation, etc.) over bumpy surfaces. Can it carry the weight required for your purposes and still maintain its integrity. This type of scrutiny should also be done on bags and racks, and always, always pretest your gear before you go.

Here's us walking after a trailer failure.  Eventually, I just biked to the closest town while these two watched our stuff and fended off mountain lions. 
Summary of resources :
Cheap gear :
Cheap way to ship bikes :
Maps : Adventure Cycling Association
Bike Network :
Soylent : (I use) 100% food
Sunscreen : Super Salve
Place to buy quality bike gear : Bike Shop Hub

I hope this list is helpful to all you potential tourers out there!  Let us know if there any lessons you've learned from bike touring that I missed.


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