A sticky heat has descended on London and as I sit here attempting to write job applications, what better way to spend my time than writing something else about cycling. I’ve been home just over a week since my journey to the US and I miss it already – The smooth, silent roads, the feeling of adventure and the wonderful people are a world away from the red-faced motorists of central London. I’ve finally uploaded all my photos here and my Strava log is here if you want to see details of the route.
I thought I’d put together a few thoughts from my first tour as hopefully it’ll be useful for anyone out there that wants to give it a go (thought 1: you won’t regret it if you do). In no particular order then:
Pack light. Of the people I met, the ones that enjoyed the riding the most were also the ones hauling the least amount of gear up the hills. Not a coincidence. This can be tackled in two ways. The first line of attack is to spend money on lightweight gear. I took a cheap but lightweight tent (more on that later) and spent £30 on a lightweight, compact sleeping bag. Similarly I tried to make sure that my bike was as light as possible without compromising on reliability. It’s not cheap but you can make real weight savings.
The second and definitely more important route is to think about what you really need to survive. Do you really need a chopping board when you can get by with a rock and a plastic bag? Did I need to take 2 books that remained almost totally unread? Do you need a pair of jeans if you’re only going to be hanging out in campsites? Having said this, I did discover that a folding coffee filter holder is in fact totally worth it and should be filed firmly under “basics” and not “luxuries”.
Food and water supplies need to be managed in order to avoid being caught short. At one point I ended up 15 miles from the nearest shop with no food and very little water. Bonking in the middle of nowhere is at best unpleasant and at worst dangerous as you lose your focus and ability to make safe progress. Always carry some calorie-dense backup food and don’t forget to snack. By the time your legs turn to lead and your arms to jelly it’s too late – even a quick infusion of sugar will take half an hour to bring your blood sugar back up and it can be particularly unpleasant if you’re stuck in the cold and rain.
Similarly with water, don’t underestimate how much you’ll drink. Even in cooler weather, know where the water stops are before you start riding.
Think about the weather. Rain and wind are the nemeses of the camping cyclist and there’s nothing worse than being soaking wet as you grind in to a relentless headwind. The prevailing winds on the West Coast blow from the Northwest and with the wind at your back, the miles melt away and the legs stay fresh. Riders we met travelling North reported being blown to a standstill on the wild roads of Oregon, with a corresponding effect on daily mileage totals and morale.
Even with best laid plans, rain is unavoidable but it’s good to have a bailout option just in case. I failed to do this (my tent, having headroom enough only for lying down was referred to as “the coffin” by my fellow travelers) and if I’d been rained in and stuck inside all day, it would have been miserable.
- Have realistic mileage expectations. It takes a few days for your “tour legs” to get going and if like me you’re on a constant body weight rollercoaster you might find (also like me) that you’re not in the best shape when you begin. It’s one thing to be able to enjoy a 130km club ride once a week but quite a step from there to enjoying 130km of riding, every day without fail, for weeks on end on a fully loaded bicycle. Start slow and if you’re finding it easy, increase the distance. Be quick to recognise when it’s getting too much, ride a shorter day and spend the afternoon eating ice cream.
- Closely related to the previous point is to not plan excessively and to maintain backup options. Being bound to a single long-range plan is sure to add stress to your tour, especially when things stop going to plan. It’s easy to lose a day to bad weather, injury or breakage so don’t obsess about sticking to the schedule. As happened to me, I ended up taking a train for the last few miles of my journey and in hindsight I’m totally glad that I did. As it turned out I really enjoyed spending a bit more time in Oregon and I wasn’t particularly disappointed to miss the dusty suburbia of South California. Some might disagree but for me touring is about enjoyment and not logging every last mile on Strava. At the end of the day, no one other than you cares about your mileage totals so you’re better off having some fun instead.
Avoiding urban areas is a good idea, especially so if you’re on your own. For a start, congested city streets and unwieldy touring bicycles do not make good bedfellows. It’s dangerous and if you’re using to powering through miles on the open road it’s irritatingly slow. Secondly, crime becomes a priority concern. Ensuring that your valuables stay with you at all times (I kept mine in my handlebar bag that was easily detached from the bars and carried on a shoulder strap – You are admittedly unlikely to make it on to The Sartorialist when taking this approach but maybe you wear it better than me) is a good idea and reduces the anxiety that comes with leaving panniers unattended when you lock your bike up. On the subject of locks, take a cable lock and not a heavy D-lock like I did. As long as you’re sensible regarding where you leave it, the consensus seems to be that fully loaded touring bicycles are rarely the target of serious bike thieves and as a result the main priority is deterring opportunist ones.
If you are going to stay in an urban area, treat yourself to a hostel or Airbnb. You can leave your panniers there and enjoy the city without worrying about them and make the most of having a working bathroom.
- Warmshowers and Couchsurfing are useful resources if you’re short on campsites and not keen to wild camp. I didn’t end up using them for this trip but they are definitely worth checking if you don’t mind doing a bit of forward planning and are fully aware of the rainbow of characters that tend to hang out there.
A far from comprehensive guide but hopefully there’s something useful in there. As always drop me an email if you’ve got any questions.