In early August, Sarah and Tom Swallow closed up their bike shop, Swallow Bicycle Works in Loveland, Ohio, and set out for the adventure of a lifetime. They hoped to be one of the first to complete the Trans America Trail, a cross-country route from North Carolina to Oregon on mostly gravel, dirt and otherwise unpaved roads. They completed the trip this week after ten weeks on the road. I caught up with Sarah to ask about the experience.
For folks who aren’t familiar, can you tell us a little about the Trans America Trail route?
The Trans America Trail route is a primarily unpaved 5,000-mile transcontinental route designed by Sam Correro, intended for dual sport motorcycles. The surface of the route consists of mostly dirt and gravel roads, some sand, mud, high-clearance rocky roads, and some pavement.
Does the route go through a lot of resupply points? How does it compare to traditional bike touring?
Because the route is designed for dual sport motorcycles, it intersects with small towns that have gas stations. The longest distance between resupply points for us was 150 miles, but most of the time it was 50 to 70 miles. The greater distances between resupply points in less populated areas like Northern Oklahoma, Utah, and Nevada required a lot more planning for food, water, and camping, as we would ride those sections in two to three days, depending on their difficulty. I suppose that traditional bike touring includes more frequent opportunities to resupply and to be in populated areas, but I think it depends on where you are bike touring.
How difficult was it to navigate the route? Did you use GPS? Maps? A little of both?
We had an easy time following the route using our GPS devices. Although it is not marked, hundreds of motorcyclists ride this route every year, so the route is fairly established with accurate and up-to-date GPX files and maps provided by Sam or GPS Kevin. We used a tablet with downloaded maps, along with local state road maps we would pick up along the way for additional reference. The tablet was also useful for when we had to modify the route files.
What were some of your personal motivations for the trip?
There have been many. To name a few, it was to see what this route was all about, to see and learn from the world, and the simple pursuit of learning by doing. We wanted to experience it together, and to test our relationship with cycling, something we’ve made a life of with Swallow Bicycle Works.
What kind of gear did you use? What would you recommend gear-wise for someone attempting it themselves?
Choosing a bicycle for this route wasn’t easy since we had no point of reference for what the route would be like other than the small sections we had ridden and the information from motorcyclists on the internet. We used information about the Tour Divide to establish an idea of what the ride could be like with the expectation that there would be more pavement and less climbing. Before this trip we had only done a handful of 3-day and one, 7-day off-road bike tours, so we had relatively little experience relevant to a trip of this proportion.
We opted for what we had the most experience with for long-distance dirt road riding, which were steel-frame touring bicycles with Bruce Gordon 43mm on-/off-road tires and a centralized, lightweight minimal bike packing system. The overall system of equipment we selected was chosen to be an ideal balance of efficiency and comfort for the time that we had to ride the entire route, which we projected to be 500 miles per week for 10 weeks. Our estimates were not too far off, although there was a lot less pavement, a lot more large rocky sections, sand, mud, every kind of gravel there is, and some extremely steep grades.
After riding the route, we realized that our bikes were extremely capable, although biased to groomed road-like conditions, rather than rough rocky trails where we would have been more comfortable on a mountain bike. Our recommendation is to ride what is most comfortable to you on as many surfaces as you can imagine, and don’t ride anything less than a 43mm tire. Also, avoid an overly heavy setup in the case of extreme conditions requiring potential hike-a-bikes (i.e. flooding, mud, sand, snow, rock-slides, and other unknowns that affect a huge route subject to a variety of weather conditions). For a detailed list of what we packed, check out the Swallow Bicycle Works website.
Can you share your favorite high point or maybe not-so-favorite low point for the trip?
The low points made the high points so much higher. One particular low point was riding 40 miles on and off through deep sand in the San Raphael Swell in the high desert of Utah, followed by an unexpectedly steep and technical 20-mile climb the following day. We had hit our limit of difficulty after only 35 miles and decided to call it a day, at which point the perfect camp spot appeared, located along a rushing creek, equipped with a fire ring, plenty of flat spots to lay the tent, and golden aspen trees and cedars all around. That night we drank as much water as we wanted, ate to our hearts’ content, and star gazed into the late hours of the night, until some clouds moved away and revealed the bright orange super moon lunar eclipse, an unexpected surprise.
Read Sarah and Tom’s dispatches from the road on the SBWxTAT blog.