By Suzanne Pletcher
Why travel halfway around the world for a bike adventure featuring great scenery when there are gems in your own backyard? I’ve lived in 12 states over the past four decades and along the way discovered that, almost anywhere you live, bucolic countryside awaits and offers a low-cost and invigorating getaway. String together a few weekends of the best spots in your area and you’ll discover—or rediscover—some good reasons why you live where you do.
That’s the premise I was working under when I put together a solo weekend bike trip to the Mendocino coast north of San Francisco. 2017 is the International Year of Sustainable Tourism and, in honor of low-carbon travel, I decided to visit California’s new Stornetta National Monument in Point Arena by bus and bike, leaving my car at home.
My trip encompassed the section of the northern California coast that stretches from Bodega Bay’s commercial fishing hub north to historic Point Arena, a masterpiece of serenity. North of the Russian River at Jenner, the tourists thin out, fog rolls in, and seagazing can be uninterrupted by anything but the sights and sounds of nature. This coastal paradise inspired Alexander Rotchev, a Russian colonist who managed the early 1800’s fur trading outpost of Fort Ross—now an historic national landmark—to declare that his years in this “enchanting land were the best years of my life.”
I chose late April, a tourist shoulder season, and it was a good choice because traffic on narrow Coast Highway 1 was sparse and the hills were brilliant green and bursting with wildflowers. The mornings were cool and foggy but by midday the sun was sparkling off the ocean and the balmy air was perfect for riding. It turned out to be a magical adventure that felt much longer than it really was.
You can make this trip as comfortable or adventurous as you like. I chose comfort at off-season hotel rates in Gualala, one mile north of bike camping under the canopy of old growth redwoods ($5 per person) at Gualala Point Regional Park.
The Mendocino Transit Authority (MTA) public bus company has a route and timetable perfectly suited to this weekend trip. The 20-person Route 95 jitney bus picked me up at 4:15 p.m. on Friday at the downtown transit center in Santa Rosa. The driver, Rick Davies, helped me lift my bike and panniers onto the front rack, ushered me aboard, and we were off. Davies drove first to Bodega Bay and from there up the coastal highway until he dropped me off at my hotel in Gualala two and one-half hours later.
Coast Highway 1 is a serpentine thread that connects the beaches, bluffs and hamlets strung along the edge of the sea. Driving it can be a white-knuckle affair, so it was nice to be free to look out the window and watch the scenery roll by while someone experienced manned the wheel. This is the Hippie Highway that sparked songs filled with superlatives such as “California Dreamin’ and “Mendocino,” and several of the buildings in towns like Jenner, Anchor Bay, and Point Arena retain a laidback vibe of the 60’s and 70’s.
In Jenner, the bus stopped for a bathroom break long enough for me to cross the street and grab a coffee at Café Aquatica, a fragrant bakery and beanerie. From here on north, the scenery is world-class. We rolled past the coast’s man-made attractions: restored Fort Ross; the commanding 93-foot tall “Madonna of Peace” obelisk at blufftop Timber Cove resort; and the Sea Ranch Chapel, a free-flowing architectural masterpiece designed by James Hubbell and built in 1985 of locally sourced materials. But the Pacific Ocean, its vastness, and the green hills abutting it stole the show.
If I had been camping, Rick would have dropped me off at Gualala Point Regional Park. Instead, I stayed aboard to cross the bridge over the Gualala River into Mendocino County. Rick dropped me off at the Gualala Country Inn, my destination, at 6:45 pm.
There was just enough time to check in for a two-night stay, drop my bags in my room and hop on my bike to ride two blocks to Trinks Cafe, a low-key locals’ eatery tucked into a small shopping mall.
Like most restaurants in town, Trinks closes at 8 pm. Choose from a half-dozen four-star entrees including burgers, fresh seafood and salads with a fine selection of wines and superb service to top it off. Trink’s fridge is stocked with yummy food and desserts to go, which you might consider for lunch tomorrow.
Gualala is a bustling town of 2,000 where coast residents stock up on groceries and catch up with one another. An historic lumber and railroad town, it is now known more for its broad sand beach, the Gualala Point Regional park with its starburst of coastal trails, and fine art displayed in galleries and the Gualala Art Center. “Downtown” is three-blocks long, and everything is within an easy ride from the hotel or campground.
Saturday morning, I grabbed an early breakfast at Trinks, then began peddling in tights, light fleece and wind jacket up the Old State Highway, signposted Gualala Street. It’s a steady climb to the local airport at 940 feet elevation, and by then I had shed layers down to a T-shirt. The main road heads north and parallels the coast on rolling terrain for more than 20 miles of woods and occasional forever views of the ocean below, though the road changes names frequently from Gualala Street to Stage Road, then Iverson Road, and Ten Mile Road. I finally turned left onto Eureka Hill Road and enjoyed a well-deserved downhill coaster ride to Riverside Drive and down to the coastal town of Point Arena where sustenance awaited.
Point Arena is an underappreciated gem of a “city” with a population of 450 and, as bus driver Rick put it fondly, “a long and tarnished history.” From its earliest settlement by whites, Point Arena was a boom and bust party town where booze flowed and brothels glowed. A major shipping port for lumber and mining supplies, it voted itself a home-rule city during Prohibition in order to sell liquor in a dry state. Its quiet cove and wharf now host a small commercial fishery and good surfing.
I immediately headed for Franny’s, a bakery that I had heard about and found simply by following the enticing aroma of freshly baked muffins and croissants.
Fortified by a generous slice of frittata and hot cup of coffee, I biked down to the historic harbor a mile west of downtown. Two youths donned five milimeter wetsuits, tucked surfboards under their arms and ran across the sand to ride nice waves on the right side of the pier. On the left side, a rock cod fisherman loaded his kayak with rod and net and paddled off to the nearby estuary. I walked out to the end of the pier and met the harbormaster, who pointed out the spray from gray whales out at sea. He gave me a quick tutorial on how to identify a whale by the shape of its spout when it exhales (a gray’s spout is heart-shaped, while a humpback’s is like an ice cream cone).
I rode back to town and north for five miles on the coast highway, then turned left onto Lighthouse Way, which leads directly west for a mile or so to Point Arena Lighthouse and Stornetta public lands.
Stornetta is named for the pioneering Italian dairy ranchers who still farm here, and its 1,665 acres is the most recent addition to the California Coastal National Monument. In her on-site dedication of the land in 2013, U. S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called it a “world-class destination for outdoor recreation.”
Here, I experienced the immensity and timelessness of sky, ocean and ancient trees. I locked my bike at the trailhead and spent the next three hours wandering the colorful bluffs, exploring tidepools and napping in the tall grass. I saw a pair of humpback whales pass so close to the cliffs that even without binoculars I could see their mottled backs rise above the water. Finally, I hopped back on the bike and rode the coast highway back to Point Arena and 14 miles down to Gualala.
On the way, I stopped for dinner in the bar at St. Orr’s, just a few miles north of Gualala. St. Orr’s is a local landmark with a story, and serves the best food around. I scarfed fish taco and seared scallops with watermelon small plates that were as a delicious to the palate as they were to the eye. Then in waning daylight I biked the last miles back to my room and a good night’s sleep after a long day.
On Sunday, I packed my bags, enjoyed the Country Inn’s hearty continental breakfast, then hopped on my bike and rode south across the bridge at Gualala River and explored the bike trails at Gualala Point Regional Park in a last two-hour commune with sky, sand and sea before returning to the hotel to check out and catch the 10:30 am MTA Route 95 bus back to Santa Rosa. I was back home by 1 pm, savoring the weekend nature retreat ride that felt days longer than it actually was.
If you go:
Gualala Country Inn, 47955 Center St., Gualala, 707 884-4343. Sprawling yellow country inn featuring rooms with views of river and ocean. Some rooms have gas fireplaces. Robust continental breakfast served in the sitting room.
The Breakers Inn, 39300 Highway 1, Gualala, 707 884-3200. Condo-like hotel featuring 28 themed rooms with balconies that overlook the Pacific. Most have fireplaces and spas.
The Surf Motel, 39170 Highway 1, Gualala, 707 884-3571. Comfortable but basic lodge-style rooms on the ocean side of the highway. An overnight stay comes with full breakfast.
Gualala Point Regional Park campground, 42401 Highway 1, Gualala. 707 785-2377. Ask your bus driver to drop you at the campground. For those camping without a car, it’s $5/pp/night, and several sites are left open for first-come-first-served. Campsites 1-5 are next to the river. All sites are shaded by massive old-growth redwoods. There are also several walk-in sites with more privacy.
Trinks,Café, 39140 Highway 1, Gualala 707 884-1713. Family owned fixture of local diners and visitors alike, offering fresh, tasty breakfast, lunch and gourmet dinners, and featuring mouthwatering desserts. Reservations advised during summer.
St. Orres, 36601 Highway 1, Gualala, CA (707) 884-3303. Russian-style lodge and restaurant offering top-line dinners and small plates in the bar where you can sit at high tables near a cavernous (and in winter, very cozy) fireplace.
Upper Crust Pizzeria, 39331 Highway 1, Gualala, 707 884-1324. Local pizza lovers’ favorite spot. Small and comfortable with a friendly atmosphere and reputation for great pizza and calzones. Build your own or order one of the specialty pizzas. Beer, wine and soft drinks.
Franny’s Cup and Saucer, 213 Main St., Point Arena 707 882-2500. Nothing but slavering reviews for this iconic bakery that anchors downtown Point Arena and offers a variety of baked goods, frittattas and quiches. However, Franny’s doesn’t offer any tables for eating, so buy your goodies and go down a half block to…
Arena Market and Café, 185 Main St., Point Arena 707 882-3663. The coffee here is better than at Franny’s, and the market offers sandwiches, organic fruit, nuts and groceries. Best is their free internet service and tables at the front where you can eat and watch the locals go by.
This trip used one bus route: The MTA 95. Total roundtrip cost for Route 95 Santa Rosa to Gualala and back: $16.50/pp; $8.20/pp for ages 62+. Bikes ride free and the bus can hold up to 4.
If you prefer a shorter bike ride and more time exploring Stornetta National Monument, then on Saturday hop aboard the MTA Route 75 bus at 7:45 am that will deliver you and your bike to Point Arena in 25 minutes, and start your bike trip from there. One-way Route 75 fare is $2.20; $1.10/pp for ages 62+. Both the Route 75 and 95 buses conveniently drop off and pick you up at the Sundstrom Mall just across Center Street from the Gualala Country Inn.Tweet Print
The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR), which currently runs 2,493 miles from Banff, Alberta, Canada to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, is the longest mountain bike route in the world and it’s about to get longer.
Four hundred new miles of mapped route will connect Jasper National Park to the north as well as the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) headquarters in Missoula, Montana (via a spur of the GDMBR). The ACA is also working on a new set of guidebooks and maps for the entire route that are more user-friendly and comprehensive.
While the GDMBR is well-known for the Tour Divide endurance race, it’s a route for all levels of cyclists, from pros to families on summer vacation.
You can help make the expanded route a reality by making a donation here.
Donations will not only help make the 400 new miles of GDMBR a reality, but they’ll also go towards a new 1,400-mile off-pavement cycling route in Arkansas.
Have you ridden the GDMBR? What are some other off-pavement cycling routes that you’ve ridden? Let us know in the comments!
By Adam Newman
Handlebar Pack -$130
In the name of simplicity and secure attachment, Ortlieb chose to design its handlebar bag to hang below the handlebars, where it stays put and doesn’t slip or bounce, rather than trying to cantilever it out in front. The laminated, ripstop nylon waterproof body has a roll-up closure at each end and Ortlieb lists its volume at 15 liters. I found it plenty large enough for a lightweight solo tent and sleeping bag. There are a myriad of ways to attach things on the outside too, beyond just the accessories pouch. The compression straps can hold extras like your tent poles or a second stuff sack, and there are some bungee cords on the exterior for a jacket. The attachment system is very secure, with a few foam spacers to make room for your brakes, shifters and cables. A super heavy-duty strap secures it in place and a secondary buckle strap cinches it up tight. The build quality is worth a shout-out, as I never once feared tearing a seam with repeated stretching, pulling, crashing, stuffing and smashing.
Accessories Pack -$75
If you go with the Ortlieb handlebar pack, you should really pick up the Accessories pack too. It attaches with the compression straps from the Handlebar pack and is big enough for several days worth of food. Having my snacks right on the handlebars made them easy to access, and when I needed to hang a bear bag at night I simply detached it and strung it up tire combo in here. It can also be attached to the handlebars on its own as a daypack, or worn around your waist or shoulder with the included waist strap.
Seat Pack -$160
Here Ortlieb chose to refine a common design rather than reinvent the wheel. The volume is adjustable from 8 liters to 16 liters, and it attaches to the seat rails with two quick release buckles and to the seatpost with heavy-duty Velcro straps. At the base of the bag, extending about a third of the way from the seatpost, is an internal cowling that gives it shape and keeps it from bulging. A really cool feature is the addition of a purge valve, which lets you squeeze all the air out of it after it’s been rolled. Getting the seatpack to work well comes down to proper packing. I found that one big item like a sleeping bag worked better than a collection of small items like clothing. Also you need to make sure the contents are stuffed firmly into the bottom of the pack, because otherwise you’re guaranteed to suffer from Droopy Butt Syndrome. After a few days of struggling with it sagging I took better care with packing and the results improved. I also started putting my tent poles in there for more support. One curious design quirk is that even with the bag nearly full I was maxing out the adjustment straps that secure the roll- top, seen here just above the Ortlieb logo. They’re also impossible to tighten while buckled, which makes adjusting them a chore.
Ortlieb has always built some insanely bomber gear, and after working these bags hard I have no doubt they’ll last a while. I would definitely recommend the handlebar pack and accessories pack for their simplicity and carrying capacity. The seat pack, on the other hand, faces much stiffer competition (intentional pun) from designs with rigid frames. It requires careful packing and its massive size is a blessing and a curse. It’s a solid choice but not a home run.
Words and photos by Cass Gilbert
“Que huevito!” they cried out as he passed. As I had suspected, Sage was proving a big hit in South America. His locks of curly blond hair, those big blue eyes and – at the tender age of 18 months – his endearingly wobbly gait, had all the women and schoolgirls swooning. They scooped him up in their arms and peppered him with kisses, the fortunate among them rewarded with a smile. And thus was born Sage’s travel persona: El Huevito, or ‘The Little Egg.’
To those in search of Latin American adventure, Chile makes a fine introduction. Few countries have it beat for sheer beauty and diversity. Long and skinny in proportion, Chile crams it in: a slender land of volcanoes, beaches, lakes, desert, vineyards, high plateaux and Patagonian steppe, corseted between Andean mountains to the east, and Pacific surf to the west. What’s more, its infrastructure is amongst the most developed in the region, making it particularly appealing for families cycling with a trailer in tow.
To the lake!
Given such a menu of natural beauty from which to gorge, my Nancy and I decided it best to hone in on three of its dominant themes for our visit: lakes, volcanoes and beaches. Thankfully, the country has a system of excellent, affordable long distance buses, and we were soon shuttled south of Santiago, all the way down to Villarica in the Lake District. A region renowned for the perfection of its bodies of water and the majesty of the volcanoes that preside over them, it made the ideal base from which to find our bearings and settle in to Chilean life.
As a seasoned solo bike tourer, I knew I was in for a radical change of pace, compared to any of my previous travels alone. Over the last few years, I’ve taken it upon myself to link the dirt roads that course through the Americas, riding from Alaska to Cuzco. I’ve pedaled my way through the crumpled ranges of Mexico’s Sierra Madre, the remote singletrack of Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast, the coffee plantations of backcountry Colombia, and the mining roads of Andean Peru.
Exploring South America has become a passion, and naturally I was excited to share my enthusiasm with my son and partner. But this would be something completely new. It would also be Sage’s first ever bike tour, let alone his first Latin American experience. Prior to the trip, we’d experimented with overnighters in New Mexico, introducing him to camping. Traveling around Santa Fe in the trailer was second nature to him too, generally having the pleasing effect of lulling him into a peaceful sleep. But Nancy and I both knew this trip promised a whole new universe of challenges—and hopefully rewards.
So instead of my usual quest to seek out the remotest of dirt roads, or clamber over mountains, or camp in abandoned houses, we kept our sights within reason, appreciating the importance of being off the bike as much as on it. Indeed, many would have ridden in a single stint what took us several days to cover. But Sage prefers to appreciate life at a more leisurely pace, stopping to smell the roses along the way. “What’s the rush, papa?” he might have been saying, as he ambled off to pet another feral dog, or inspect a rock of particular interest. And who were we to disagree? Rediscovering the world through Sage’s eyes proved to be a highlight of traveling together, as we marveled at his unconditional interest in everything that surrounded him.
Our first night camping was in a farmer’s field, pitched under the cosseting arms of a giant oak tree in full autumnal bloom. Sage observed us set up our brand new tent, as if appraising our efforts. He was eager to be part of the team, so I sent him off to deliver tent stakes to his mother, in what was to become our daily ceremony. “Shoes off in the tent, Sage,” we said, when the tent was up, laying down the camp craft ground rules. He’d duly oblige, before slipping into our portable cocoon and helping-in his eyes at least-to inflate his diminutive Therm-a-Rest.
As a family, we prepared dinner together that first night on the table of an uneven slab of wood, cooking up fresh produce we’d sourced in an outdoor market in Villarica. Then Sage indulged in a favorite pastime— expressive dancing, hands arcing through the air to the falling leaves that swirled in the wind. But his highlight that day was surely the enormous pig that snuffled over, inspecting him as it might a small piece of juicy cauliflower. Sage was positively delighted.
Over the next few days, we worked our way up and down the steep rolling, gravel roads of the region. And ridiculously steep they were. Sometimes, they spiraled so abruptly skyward that it required the two of us pushing my bike together, with all our might, feet scrabbling, to the brows of hills. As I quickly found out, a bike, trailer, growing baby, food, and all the paraphernalia of toys we carried amongst our entourage certainly makes for good strength training. By comparison, my fat-tired Surly Pugsley felt positively buoyant when unladen. In any case, our toils made for good excuses to pause regularly, when we saw horses and cows to show Sage, or a patch of grass to picnic on. Passing through small settlements, our preferred food stops involved piping hot empanadas, the Chilean speciality, which we’d all blow on then eat in harmonious, contended family silence. Sage would then retire to his chariot for an afternoon nap, and a couple of hours later we’d seek out a suitable spot to pitch the tent, whether it be an organized campsite, or an impromptu opportunity we chanced upon.
Journey to the Monkey Puzzle trees
Our first destination was Coliseum, a small hamlet nestled at the foot of the Conguillío National Park. But just as we arrived, heavy weather rolled in after days of warming sunshine, forcing us to forgo our portable home for the cheapest room we could find in a local hospedaje. It was bare bones: the door refused to close, creaking petulantly, and the lopsided bed threatened to swallow Sage whole. So began El Huevito’s initiation to dirt-bag touring. Soon, our combined belongings were strewn around our shoebox of a space, clothes of all shapes and sizes hanging from windows and door handles.
Porridge was cooked up on the floor of the bathroom and the bed quickly filled with bread crumbs. Of course, the matriarchal owners of the hospedaje were quickly won over by Sage’s blue- eyed charms, calling out his name and luring him into the kitchen, the social centre of the premises. To Nancy’s chagrin, he’d return from such forays laden with a soft drink and biscuits, when prior to the trip, his impeccable diet revolved around the finest home cooked, organic goodness the Santa Fean farmer’s market could offer.
There was nothing to do but wait out the storm for a couple of days, as Sage bounced around the walls in his sugary fix. When a break in the weather finally came, our patience was rewarded with cinematic views of the conical Llaima Volcano, towering overhead at 10,252 feet. Come morning, we made a dash for the park itself. Following soft and loamy dirt roads, we climbed ever upwards into this wild, beautiful and other-worldly place, striking out across its volcanic lunar landscape, where islands of fertile land lay stranded between lava flows frozen in time—or at least until the next eruption.
With a 1,500 foot climb to tackle that day, we made it, just, to the enchanting Araucaria araucana, standing nobly in tranquil groves around the park. Their nickname was as appealing as their appearance: Monkey Puzzle trees are so called as it’s considered that climbing them would flummox even a monkey. I could see why. These bizarre, bandy, Seussian-like creations reach up to 130 feet high, and their tentacle-like branches are clad in stiff, sharp edged leaves, surely protecting them from any primate intrusion.
To the beach!
Mission accomplished, it was time to gather our belongings, scour the room for toys, and move on once more. Appreciating the way rain douses family holiday-making with a perfunctory fizzle, we headed north, in search of beaches and sunshine. Our destination, Valparaíso, is well known in Chile as an artistic city rich in muralism, and perfectly located to spend our last few nights camping along the Pacific. So away from the damp and humid Lake District we fled, via a 12-hour bus ride that required both stubborn haggling to secure safe passage of our booty of bikes and trailer, and the challenge of coaxing Sage through the night without one of his famous meltdowns.
Thankfully, animals and objects all survived, largely unscathed, to be unceremoniously ejected into Valparaíso’s bus station in the early hours. It was our first experience of urban riding, South American-style. Where we’d meandered through a quiet, traffic-free Lake District, here we tussled with cars, dodged kami- kaze buses, and hopped jagged curbs, the trailer dancing graciously but unintentionally on one wheel at times.
The hostel we found in this ramshackle port’s bohemian district was perfect. Adorned with pictures of bicycles in every room, La Bicyclette was run by the ever-smiling Giles, a relocated Frenchman who bobbed around us enthusiastically and mollycoddled Sage. “No problem, no problem,” he soothed again and again, showing us to a bright and airy room, its windows opening out onto a colorful street scene below, as he advised on the best places to walk.
Giles was quite right. Family cycling isn’t much of an option in Valparaíso, given the crazy traffic that plies its streets, and the even crazier inclines etched into the hills of this lopsided city. So steep are the roads draped across the hillside that each year the city hosts an urban Red Bull challenge, in which downhill riders tear down its stairways and barrio backstreets, the angle of which puts San Francisco to shame.
Instead we took to the city by foot, investigating its fish market, exploring the preserved house of national poet and Nobel Prize in Literature winner Pablo Neruda, and appreciating the wonderful array of murals for which Valparaíso, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is known. Quite literally, the city is painted in color. Like a giant outdoor gallery, one piece of street art after another graces all but every wall, with barely a blank slab of dreary concrete to be seen.
Munching on our Chilean empanada staple, we ambled down its maze of precipitous passageways, and admired its mishmash of architectural styles, houses stacked up like Jenga. Sage seemed to enjoy himself too, running, wobbly-legged, down the steepest of its inclines. Emitting peels of baby laughter, he gathered a drunken-like momentum with each step, tottering ever so close to the tall curbs that match him for height, as we chased after him with nervous exhaustion.
When it was time to escape the city, there was no avoiding a herculean climb: a 1,300 feet elevation gain over just a few lung-busting, vein-popping, sweat-inducing miles. With just a few nights left in Chile, we made for a remote headland we’d been told promised peace and solitude. The ride there, rollercoasting up and down a network of dusty red dirt tracks, was bereft of traffic but exhausting. Again, the challenges proved worthwhile. The dilapidated campsite perched at the end of the headland may have been a babysitter’s nightmare, complete as it was with spools of discarded barbed wire and rickety walkways, but it boasted its own private cove of unimaginable beauty.
There, we dined at sunset, gazing out into the vastness of the Pacific and watching pelicans swoop overhead, which incited excited squeaks and finger jabbing from Sage. Come morning, we beachcombed to our hearts content, clambering over rocks, sifting through flotsam and creating collections of shells. Sage, Befriender of Feral Animals, even found himself a kitten as a playmate, before it was time to load up once more, return to Valparaíso and begin the process of retracing our steps home.
All in all, our first family cycling trip had been a definite success. Looking at the world through Sage’s eyes had proved to be, in itself, a journey of true wonder, equal to the best riding we’d enjoyed over our three weeks in Chile. Sometimes, it was as simple as noticing the way in which he watched birds fly by, or looked out to sea, or stared up at trees. There were so many moments to cherish: playing chase around the campsite table, reading bedtime stories together in the tent or introducing him to portly pigs. The family bond is strong in South America, and the manner in which everyone we met interacted with us, warming immediately to Sage, introduced a new richness to traveling.
I can’t claim it was the smoothest of rides, or that we slipped into family travel effortlessly and gracefully. It was hard, harder than I’d envisaged, despite all my studious planning and fretting. At times Sage struggled, and at times we all struggled. But even with hindsight, I’m not sure it could have been any other way. This was living, each and every moment of the day. It had brought us closer as a family. Together, we’d learnt and grown.
Words and photos by Colt Fetters
Am I allowed to travel to Cuba as a “tourist”?
Yes, as long as you self-qualify under one of the 12 specific categories for a general license. We traveled under the basis of education—we visited museums, monuments, historic sites and researched on spectacular roads for a bikepacking route. Another option is booking a trip with a structured tour, such as the People-to-People Tours.
What documents are needed?
Usually airlines will help tremendously with the documents needed for travel. Airlines handle travel to Cuba differently; however, so do your research. In general, every traveler will need the following:
• A tourist card
• A general license
• Travel insurance
Bring enough cash
You may read that U.S. cards are now accepted in Cuba; however, at the time of writing, U.S. financial institutions had not yet developed a meaningful presence in the country. The cash we brought was the only currency we had available.
Where do I stay?
The typical accommodation used by travelers is casas particulares. These are private Cuban homes that rent their extra rooms for about $20 to $30 per night. Although hotels are available throughout the country, casas particulares are arguably more accommodating and comfortable—and are ripe with potential for experiencing culture more intimately, as they give travelers a peek into Cubans’ private lives.
What bicycles are ideal?
This depends whether you are looking to tour dirt roads or paved roads. A typical touring bike outfitted with panniers and 40c tires would work well for paved roads. Dirt roads can be fairly chunky—we traveled on a rigid 29er mountain bike and an even bigger 29plus rigid bike complete with bikepacking bags.
What about food?
Typically on bikepacking trips I cook many of my own meals. However, it was difficult to find camp-stove fuel in Cuba. We mostly ate street food and purchased extras to eat while on the road. Grocery selections were pretty basic and not very exciting. Our favorite personal-size pizzas were available for less than $1(!) at small stands in most towns.
Learn some Spanish
The majority of Cubans do not speak English. It is essential that you know at least a few conversational phrases that will help you get around, buy food and find directions. Free apps such as Duolingo are very helpful for learning some Spanish.
Keep Reading: Check out Colt’s story about traveling through Cuba with his significant other here.Tweet Print
Words and photos by Colt Fetters
Staring into the dark, dense jungle ahead I struggled to make out the trail. I studied my GPS, then looked back up—yes, this indeed was the “trail.” Completely overgrown with tangled green branches, it didn’t appear that the trail had been used in the past year. This was new to me. Sure, I’ve hike-a-biked outrageous terrain in foreign countries plenty before, but never with Hannah.
I looked back at her. “I trust you,” she said. Honestly, that was the last thing I wanted to hear. What I was hoping to hear her say was: “Are you crazy? We’re lost in the middle of the jungle, in Cuba for God’s sake! Let’s get the hell out of here!” And instead of turning back, we continued pushing our bikes deeper into the unknown.
I’m ashamed to admit that this was a typical charade of mine: planning an international bike-touring trip with a half-baked route, limited knowledge of the local language and less plans than a college graduate with a fine arts degree. However this time I was responsible for someone besides myself. So there we were, in the middle of Cuba, hiking our bikes down a long-abandoned path, sure of the destination but not quite sure of the route to get there.
By now you can probably tell that this isn’t your typical feel-good travel story, complete with descriptions of luxurious landscapes, delectable cuisine and friendly locals. All of that was still present, but the story I’d like to tell is of sharing my passion for bikepacking with a loved one— and of wanting so damn much for her to be just as psyched to ride her bike as I was. I wasn’t off to a great start…
On the Road
Our plan was a 16-day bikepacking trip in northern Cuba, covering 450 miles from the tobacco farming valley of Viñales to the bustling colonial town of Trinidad, via dirt roads, horse paths and walking trails. Hannah’s resume of bicycle travel was short, consisting of just one prior overnight bike tour in the foothills of northern Georgia. Looking back, this trip was a bold endeavor for someone with her limited experience. I should have known better. However, my mind was clouded with one desire: To share my love of bicycle touring with the one I love.
Captivated by the images we had seen of colorful streets and colonial architecture, we thought to ourselves, what better place than Cuba for Hannah to experience her first bikepacking trip? A country romanticized for its vibrant salsa music, with locals dancing and puffing on smoky cigars in city squares while vintage American cars chug through narrow streets with their tops down.
Most of our route took the form of long, gravel farm roads, oddly resemblant of the American Midwest. But instead of corn, the roads were lined with towering stalks of green sugar cane. Farmers with brimmed cowboy hats and hearty mustaches would stop and stare in surprise as we bounced along the road before them. It wasn’t long before the Cuban countryside grew on us. Its long, flat roads lulled us into the bike-touring lifestyle.
In between the long stretches of gravel and sugar cane, we encountered small agricultural towns— simple and picturesque, with vibrantly colored homes and streets filled with horse carriages, street vendors and rusty single-speed bicycles. There were no hotels to be found in these quaint towns, so we bunked with the locals—who provided spectacular meals. Breakfasts were usually comprised of elaborate spreads of fruit, fresh squeezed juice, eggs and Cuban espresso. We would leave the casas with full bellies, ready to explore the roads ahead.
Though we brought more than enough cash to exchange for Cuban pesos, we unfortunately lost several hundred dollars due to a sticky-fingered currency-exchange attendant. After our loss, we had only the money in our wallets for the remainder of the trip. This forced us to impose a strict budget and thus, our standard of living sharply decreased. The food other tourists ranted and raved about was no longer an option. Instead we “enjoyed” a more authentic experience, relying on street vendors for our meals.
Typical meals included bologna and cheese on stale buns, makeshift pizzas and fried-fish sandwiches. The abrupt lack of funds would have had most newbie travelers down and discontent, yet Hannah embraced the challenge. Rising to the occasion, she didn’t complain. She even pretended to enjoy the bologna and fried fish (even though she just converted from her 13-year vegetarianism only a month prior to the trip). What better attitude could I have asked for in a travel partner?
There’s a funny thing about sharing the things you love with the people that you care most about: They don’t always feel the same way you do. I knew this was a possibility, yet I still wanted her to experience the solace of an open dirt road, the thrill of being left broke and stranded and the freedom of carrying everything you need on your bicycle.
Rolling with the Locals
I’m happy to say, Hannah did fall in love with bikepacking. But it was for entirely different reasons than my own. It’s not that she didn’t value the aspects of bicycle travel that I did, but the appeal for her was different. It was about the people. Connecting with the locals was a cinch for her, not that either of us are fluent in Spanish. Still, the language barrier didn’t stop her like it seemed to inhibit me. Everywhere we went, Cubans absolutely adored her. Maybe it was the blonde hair, the deep- blue eyes, or her big ole smile … Or maybe they just plain liked her better than they did me. Never have I been treated better in a foreign country, and I can assure you, the treatment was based on association, purely.
Apart from the cat calls and unwanted kissy faces that were thrown about unashamedly, the locals would go out of their way to ensure our comfort, whether that meant discounting our room for the night or walking us all the way across town just to find a place to eat. On one such occasion, we were walked to the local state cafeteria where, once we arrived, we were told we were not allowed in the establishment, per government policy. So instead, the manager ushered us into his home next door and set out a feast fit for Fidel Castro himself.
After our chicken bones were scoured and the rice was no more, the host’s father came out to introduce himself. He urged us to follow him, as he plodded outside to a small shed. After working the rusty lock free from its hinge, the door swung open to reveal a simple room with a small desk in the corner. As he sat, we gathered around and watched him pull a clump of aged tobacco leaves from a glass jar. His hands came to life, masterfully rolling the leaves back and forth like he had done thousands of times. Eighty cigars a day, he grumbled in Spanish. He rolled, pressed, then wrapped the bundle with a carefully selected leaf—the entire process took 10 minutes. As the tobacco transformed into a stubby cigar, he held his work to the light, as if to inspect it. And then, before the cigar had been in existence for even 10 seconds, he lopped off the end, held it to a flame and offered it to us with a smile.
It is such genuine experiences, no matter how small, that make a trip extraordinary. This being just one story of many that made a significant impact on us. Interactions as simple as the farmer who gave us a personal tour of his tobacco farm, the young boy that “helped” us plug a hole in our tire, the woman that wouldn’t stop washing our bicycles, or the process of exchanging a Polaroid photograph for a smile—all these events bestow a sense of fulfillment that is hard to describe. However, it’s not always the positive experiences that make for the best stories and longest-lasting memories.
Our New Friend
Our last night on the road was spent in what had originally been anticipated to be a marvelous campsite, located along a ridge in the Escambray Mountains. The view extended over the valley below, all the way to the coast where Trinidad sat off in the distance. Slowly, the light drained from the sky and we settled down for the night under the minimal protection of our tarp strung above our heads.
As night set in, the jungle started to stir. At first, the noises were present only in our imagination. Then they started to materialize into reality. Something scurried over the foot of our sleeping bags. I scrambled for a light. There sat a large rat in the bush above us. I turned off my light—rats, although not ideal, we could handle. Then came the footsteps. Surely I was imagining the sounds. A bright light landed upon our faces. I scrambled from my bed of dirt and grasped for my headlamp. When my eyes finally adjusted to the light, I stared into a grizzled face. His Spanish reached my frazzled ears, but I wasn’t able to make sense of it. Looking down I saw a machete on his waist and a blanket in his arms. Suddenly, it all made sense. We had stolen his campsite.
Frustrated, he stomped away, and just before I let out a sigh of relief, he threw down his blanket and laid down for bed—a mere 20 feet from our campsite! Surely, repacking our bikes and setting off at this hour was not an option. I racked my brain for the best course of action, but finding no obvious answer, I joined Hannah back under the “protection” of our tarp, attempting to reassure her that all was well. Through the night I laid wide-eyed, unable to sleep. My mind ran rampant with the wild imaginations that are typical when sleeping next to a machete-wielding neighbor.
When morning finally arrived, we rolled out of bed, red-eyed and tired from our sleepless night. It turned out the man had left in the night, and we were left dazed, wondering if it had all just been a dream—which it most certainly was not. It was going to take some heavy persuading to convince Hannah to camp out again anytime soon.
The last couple days of a tour are typically filled with exuberance and anticipation. This day was no different. I hate to admit that we were ready for the trip to end—but in all honesty, we were. Sure, we were coming away with incredible memories and a sense of empowerment at handling such unusual challenges together, but after a night like we’d just had, we were ready for our own bed.
The End in Sight
Cruising down the long, winding descents from the Escambray Mountains into the coastal town of Trinidad, we knew our first order of business: booking bus tickets back to the airport in Havana. We were no rookies. We le ourselves three days’ cushion to be back for our flight to the States. The bus station was bustling when we arrived. As I stood in line, waiting to purchase tickets, I studied my Spanish translation book, preparing to communicate our urgent need for tickets.
Once at the front of the line, I spoke clearly, absolutely nailing the Spanish phrase I had rehearsed, which was a rarity for me. My victory was short-lived when my request for tickets was met with a resounding, “No, todo reservado.”
“Wait, you’re booked?” I asked.
“Si, para ocho dias.” “For eight days?” I queried incredulously, holding up the alleged number in fingers, just to make entirely sure that I understood.
Bewildered, Hannah and I sat on the bench outside of the station, heads in our hands. Our flight was leaving in just three days and the bus was our only way of transportation. Hannah turned toward me, grabbed my hand and said: “Hey, we’ve dealt with this kind of shit before, we will figure it out. We have to.” She was right. We had to figure it out. Our wallets were dwindling and we didn’t have the budget to extend our stay.
As usual, she was right, we did figure it out. After many failed attempts of finding a taxi that could fit our bicycles, Hannah came across a local bus traveling to Havana. Somehow she was able to convince the driver to accommodate our bikes and our budget. We were off, headed to Havana, thanks to Hannah’s charm. Had the negotiating been left to me, we’d still be stranded on a street corner in Trinidad.
My hope for this trip was that Hannah would fall in love with touring—amazingly, I got much more than I bargained for. I got a travel partner—someone sharing in the experiences and challenges, and contributing enormously to a trip’s success. Never again will I leave for weeks at a time without her, only to spend my time on my bicycle halfway across the world, thinking about her. From now on, I prefer her right next to me. Experiencing everything with me—the ups and the downs.
I’m concluding this story with itchy palms. Not because of the exhilarating memories nor because of the anticipation of our next trip, but because of the deep-red rash covering my entire body, from head to toe. That’s right, Cuba gave me the Zika virus. But don’t worry, I’m choosing to count this as an experience I won’t soon forget.Tweet Print
Words and photos by Tom O’Brien
“I hate this hill,” Jake whined as he dismounted his bike and began pushing it toward the summit of the climb like Sisyphus with a boulder. “I can’t believe you thought I was serious about riding all the way to North Carolina. I MEANT IT AS A JOKE!”
It was no joke now. The two of us were all alone on day one of the first self-supported bike tour either of us had ever attempted, and nothing was going well. Not yet noon, the temperature on this late July day was well into the nineties, with 100% humidity, and we’d already repaired our first flat tire (only 13 miles from home). To make matters worse, I hadn’t yet figured out how to remove the panniers, nor had I bothered to make sure my brand new mini-pump was set up for Presta valves. Neither one of us had even ridden a featherweight road bike over the Taconic Mountains, much less a fully-loaded touring rig. It was going to be a long day.
What was looking more and more like a really bad idea got started back in February when, from out of the blue, my 14-year-old son said,“Hey Dad, why don’t we ride our bikes to the beach this year?” The “beach” he was referring to wasn’t one town over; it was in Corolla, North Carolina—600 miles away from our home in Connecticut—where his grandparents rent a vacation house every summer.
It was a ridiculous suggestion that should have gone in one ear and right out the other. Although I was a lifelong bike fanatic, I’d never done a multi-day tour. And Jake was a fair-weather cyclist who’d never ridden more than 30 miles in one day. But suddenly this surly teenager, who considers his middle-aged father a constant source of embarrassment, was talking about spending weeks on the road with me. I promised that if he was serious about taking this journey, I’d find a way to make it happen. Apparently, he didn’t have the guts to fold when his bluff was called.
So that’s how we found ourselves drenched in sweat, inching our way up a mountain in eastern New York, and rapidly running out of water. Just as we crossed the summit and began our descent toward Poughkeepsie, I took a sip from my Camelback and was rewarded with nothing but a blast of warm air. A moment later, Jake, red-faced and sweating, turned to me and said, “I’m dry.” Lucky for us, at the foot of the mountain we found a convenience store selling spring water in gallon jugs for 99 cents. We bought two.
Things got better from there. Our first night on the road was spent with friends on the outskirts of Poughkeepsie who treated us to a cookout and a refreshing dip in their swimming pool. Maybe it wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
We awoke the next morning in much better spirits and decided to give this mad adventure one more try. Both of us were looking forward to the opportunity to cross the big river using the famous Walkway Over the Hudson, a restored mile-long railroad trestle that soars two hundred feet above the surface of the water.
Like a first visit to the Grand Canyon, the word “breathtaking” does not begin to describe the panoramic view from the center point of that magnificent structure.
We could have lingered on the Walkway for hours—besides the view, there were ice cream vendors set up on both ends of the bridge–but we were hoping to cover another 50 miles before stopping for the night, so off we rode onto the rail trail that led to the college town of New Paltz, and our choice of 5 different pizzerias for lunch.
At this point, I should mention that my son considers himself a pizza connoisseur (even though the only kind he’ll eat is pepperoni). Before we left home he had started a travel blog and promised to post a review of all the pizza places we visited. Here’s his expert opinion on New Paltz’s My Hero Pizzeria and Submarine Shop: “Pizza was great, perfect amount of grease, plenty of pepperoni, and just great overall.” After a long morning in the saddle, that pizza tasted “great” to me too, but after two weeks, and 8 or 9 large pepperonis, I’d had enough.
Thunderstorms out to get us
Part of the reason that Day 1 was such an ordeal was that we had to figure out our own way to get to Poughkeepsie (hence the insanely steep mountain crossing), but from that point on we intended to follow Adventure Cycling’s well-traveled Atlantic Coast Route for the remainder of the journey. Assuming that the roads would be flatter and the traffic calmer from this point on gave us a bit more confidence that we might actually complete the journey. Too bad the weatherman didn’t get the memo.
Day 2 was even more oppressive than Day 1–extreme humidity, temperatures flirting with triple digits, and pop-up thunderstorms lining the horizon. On Day 3, an approaching cold front promised relief from the steam bath, but not until after a line of strong storms pushed through. The night before, we’d made plans to get an early start and make it to Port Jervis, NY well ahead of the front. But getting a teenager moving in the morning is like kick-starting an ancient Harley Davidson. We didn’t get on the road until 10 am, and within a few hours, the towering clouds and rumbles of thunder were bearing down on us.
If I was riding alone I would have pressed on. We’ve got good life insurance, and I’m sure that no reputable carrier would try to invoke a suicide clause just because some poor sap wasn’t smart enough to come in out of the storm. But when I’m traveling with my son, my maternal instincts take over.
We kept pedaling, but I made note of every covered porch, open barn, or unlocked garage that we passed, in case we needed to make a mad dash for shelter.
When a huge bolt of lightning struck way too close just as we were passing a wastewater treatment plant, it was time to cut and run. Lucky for us, the gates were unlocked and just inside the fence was an enormous pavilion with nothing but a plastic-lined dumpster underneath, plenty of room for two bike travelers to take shelter from the storm. I had a pretty good idea about what was inside the dumpster but decided to keep my suspicions to myself.
Eventually, the storm let up enough for us to pedal into Port Jervis, tired and soaking wet. Although we’d planned to camp, I was glad to find an inexpensive room in The Erie Hotel, a restored landmark from the golden age of the railroad, with a restaurant downstairs that served no pizza. The only downside was that the bike parking was two flights up.
We awoke to much cooler temperatures and a steady rain that was not expected to let up all day. We hadn’t thought to include fenders or serious rain gear in our trip preparations, but neither of us wanted to lose a day’s worth of travel so we decided to press on.
I was certain that Jake would be miserable, and that I’d have to spend the rest of the day listening to a whining teenager complaining about the rain, and the cold, and how he was going to get himself legally emancipated as soon as we got home. But he was loving it. About 20 miles down the road, when we were both thoroughly soaked, he turned to me and said, “This is the best day yet!” It was indeed a refreshing change to be drenched in rainwater rather than sweat. Later in the day when we took a break at an ice cream parlor, I felt so guilty about the enormous puddle we left under our table that I borrowed a mop to clean it up.
We were planning to camp out, but the rain never let up, so I was glad to find a room in a motel with a covered balcony that allowed us to dry off our bikes, remove the seat posts, and turn the bikes upside down to let the water drain out.
Looking back on it, every day of our journey was unique, but most days started and ended the same way: struggling to wake up a comatose teenager and finding another excuse to forgo camping.
A sunny weekend on the river
We spent the next few days following the Delaware River from the Water Gap to the outskirts of Philadelphia. It was the weekend, the weather, at last, was perfect (sunny, high seventies, low humidity), and the river was teaming with activity. Early on Saturday morning, we were joined briefly by a peloton of club riders out for their weekly 50-miler. They were excited to find out about our adventure and we rode together for a couple of flat miles, but when we hit the first climb, our heavily-loaded bikes were no match for their carbon fiber racing machines, so we waved our goodbyes.
Early that afternoon we started seeing school buses, dozens and dozens of them, passing us from both directions. At first I wondered what school could possibly be in session in late July? Then I noticed the hundreds of bright pink inner tubes floating down the river and realized what they were up to. Going tubing down the Delaware on a warm summer day looked like it might be almost as much fun as biking.
When it came time to stop for the night my luck ran out. There was no chance of rain, air conditioning was totally unnecessary, a private campground was a mile away and it was not filled up. We were going to camp.
Jake was delighted. By the time I emerged from the shower, he’d pitched the tent, inflated our sleeping pads, started a fire, and had marshmallows ready for roasting. We had a great time until it was time to try to get some sleep. Despite having sprung for the most expensive inflatable sleeping pad, I awoke the next morning with a stiff neck that would haunt me for the remainder of the journey.
Smells like teen spirit
Aside from my little aches and pains, Sunday was another delightful ride along the Delaware. Until about 4 pm when, just north of Lambertville, New Jersey, Jake began to complain that his front shock had gone squishy on him. It wasn’t the shock: He had a flat tire, his first of the trip, and he insisted on fixing it himself. Until he had trouble; then he wanted my help immediately. Until he didn’t need my help anymore; then he wanted me as far away from him as possible. Until he had trouble; then he wanted me back NOW!
I GOT THIS, NOW GO AWAY!
DAD I GOT IT!
Our little dance went on for about 45 minutes. But all was forgotten once he pumped up the tire and it held.
Every parent of a teenager has to figure out how to relate to a human being who ping-pongs between childhood and adulthood at random. Given the stress of taking on a journey that neither of us had properly prepared for, I was expecting much worse. Aside from his first few days on the road and the flat tire incident, Jake handled his frustrations well.
It was the other characteristic of being a teenager that I couldn’t stand: his strength. If I were to draw a graph that compared our pedaling power as the trip wore on, it would show me significantly stronger at the outset, holding my own for awhile, then gradually getting weaker. Jake, on the other hand, would struggle for the first few days, then get stronger every day afterward. While I had to help him get over the Taconics on the first day of the trip, by the time we reached the steep hills on the banks of the Susquehanna River a week and a half later he was pulling me along like a domestique in the Tour de France. Life is so unfair.
Car transfer to North Carolina border
Another critical detail I failed to plan for was how much further we’d have to travel in order to ride back roads to the Outer Banks of North Carolina rather than drive the interstate. I had been assuming that after two weeks of riding, we’d be deep into Virginia. But we were still in Pennsylvania, a day’s ride north of the Maryland Border. Fortunately, we had a backup plan.
One of the reasons that I went along with Jake’s nutty idea of bicycling all the way to the beach was that my wife Cece was planning to drive there two weeks later, so if we fell behind, we could always get a lift. I didn’t want Jake to miss out on precious time with his cousins at the beach, so we met up with Cece just across the border in Maryland and loaded our bikes and gear into her car.
Jake and I had no idea how much we’d grown accustomed to a slower pace of life over the past two weeks until my lead-footed wife drove onto I-95 and hit the gas. I was plastered to the back of my seat as if the Ford Escape was being launched into outer space. And all I heard from my traveling partner in the backseat was “WHOA!”
After spending the night in a motel in Richmond, Cece dropped us off on the North Carolina border, so we could bicycle the remaining 63 miles to the beach house in Corolla. Unfortunately for us (at first), it was a Saturday morning in August, and the four-lane road we had to follow for the first 20 miles of the day was packed with speeding vacationers anxious to get to the beach. Many were hauling boats and motor homes, and seemingly oblivious to the safety of two fragile bike-riders on the shoulder.
Both of us were delighted when the Atlantic Coast Route took us onto back roads for the next 10 miles of the trip, but we weren’t looking forward to rejoining the “highway” and then taking our chances on the 3-mile-long bridge (with narrow shoulders) that links the mainland with the islands.
I suppose you have to be a bicyclist to rejoice when you encounter a massive traffic jam. But during the brief time that we were away from it, US 158, the main road to the Outer Banks, had been transformed from a speedway to a parking lot. All of that beach traffic was at a standstill, but the shoulder was wide open. For the next half hour (at least), two bicycles traveling at 14 miles per hour were the speed demons on the Wright Memorial Bridge. Just as we neared the east end of the bridge, I heard this plaintive whine from a child in one of the trapped cars: “They’re going to make it to the beach before we will.”
Twenty years ago when I first visited the Outer Banks, it was not bike-friendly. SR 12, the main north-south road, had no shoulders and steep edges that dropped off into deep sand. Nowadays, there’s a generous shoulder along the full length of the road as well as numerous bike paths. We took our time negotiating the final 25-mile ride to the beach house—partly to savor the remainder of the journey, and partly because Cece called to tell us that some of our relatives were stuck in the bridge traffic and wanted to be there to greet our arrival. We were happy to slow down to allow the motorists to catch up.
Tom O’Brien is a carpenter, freelance writer, and bike advocate based in New Milford, Connecticut.Tweet Print
Words by Molly Brewer Hoeg, photos by Molly Brewer Hoeg and Rich Hoeg
It had been forty years since either of us stayed in a youth hostel. Back in our college days, we each independently did the backpacking through Europe thing. Staying at youth hostels was standard practice and the best way to stay within a tight budget. I remember too well the strict curfews, requirement to leave the hostel during the day and the restrictions against alcohol.
As my husband, Rich, and I began planning our first cycling tour abroad, we got our first inklings that much has changed in the hostelling scene. And it worked to great advantage for us.
This three-week trip through northern Scotland would follow our usual routine. We’d travel on our own with a general itinerary, making more specific route choices as we went. In the interest of simplicity, we decided against bringing our camping gear. It meant we would be paying significantly more for lodging each night, especially considering that cheap roadside motels – our staple in the U.S. – do not exist in Scotland. It appeared that B&Bs, guesthouses and inns would be our options – until we rediscovered hostels.
For starters, forget the “youth” part. Hostels are for everyone. Although they frequently cater to people inclined to outdoor adventures, they are not limited to such. And we soon learned that the range of accommodations, facilities and services ranges widely between hostels. Sampling four hostels, we found each one to be unique.
Our first hostel stay came about as a backup plan. We had been following the National Cycle Network Route #1 across northern Scotland, impressed with the dramatic coastal scenery. Reaching Cullen, we headed to the B&B we had selected. Rather surprised to find us on his doorstep, the owner informed us he was no longer in business and quickly directed us to the Cullen Harbour Hostel. We arrived at the eclectic collection of buildings right on the water to find the yard draped with surfing gear. A university group was there for the weekend seeking big waves. Unsure about sharing rooms with the young students, it was a pleasant surprise to find that they had a four-bed family room we could have to ourselves. Not only were blankets and linens provided but we had our own bathroom as well. Although we were uncertain whether we would have heat, which seemed important in that spring season, we returned from dinner to find the room plenty warm. The $67 we paid for the night was a far cry from our student days, but was still a big savings over a B&B.
That was our first introduction to independent hostels. Each is owner-operated and usually a member of either Scottish Independent Hostels or Scottish Hostels. Together they offer over 180 hostels. Most have dorm rooms as well as private rooms, are flexible in the length of stay and usually have a self-catering kitchen.
We might never have found the Gearrannan Hostel if it hadn’t been for a local cyclist’s recommendation. By this time we were on the rugged Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. She told us it was in a “blackhouse” but until we arrived we didn’t realize it was actually part of a museum. The Gearrannan Blackhouse Village featured restored and reconstructed stone buildings from the late 1800s, unique for their double stone wall construction and thatched roofs secured by stone weights. They originally served as living space for both people and farm animals, as well as barn storage. Historic on the outside but modern on the inside, the hostel accommodations were very comfortable. We found that sharing a bunk room and kitchen facilities with several other hostellers provided good company. Having arrived without food and too far to cycle to any shops, the museum staff arranged to bring us dinner and serve us breakfast in their small café. We felt well cared for.
Staying in the hostel gave us free access to the village where we could tour the buildings with historical displays and demonstrations of making the famous Harris Tweed fabric. But the real treat came after closing time. We had the freedom to roam the grounds which included hilly terrain and a rough coastline. It was hauntingly beautiful under the late setting sunlight. We easily voted this our most memorable lodgings of the whole trip.
Moving on through the Highlands, we made our way down to the Isle of Mull. Tobermory was reputed to be a picturesque town with colorful buildings lining the harbor. That lineup included the Tobermory Youth Hostel. As its name implies, this hostel is part of the Scottish Youth Hostel Association (SYHA Hostelling Scotland), which harks back to the International Youth Hostel organization we remember from our college days. However, today they welcome travelers of all ages in more than 70 hostels. We found the hostel to be simple but neat and clean, and again opted for a private room, this time with a shared bathroom down the hall. The trip up several flights of stairs to our room included a dash outside, but it seemed a small inconvenience. The kitchen was large and included cubby holes for individuals to store their food. We certainly couldn’t beat the location, and it had the added advantage of allowing a single night’s stay when most of the B&Bs had a two night minimum. It was an easy walk to restaurants as well as the sights of the town and harbor, which was especially welcome after a long day of cycling.
Traveling up the Great Glen, cycling along Loch Lochy and Loch Ness, we continued on to Inverness. Knowing that accommodations in the city were more pricey we sought out a hostel once again. From several options, we chose the SYHA Inverness Youth Hostel for its central location. The very large facility not only provided the usual hostel amenities but also included wifi, a guest lounge, coffee bar, café and served alcohol – quite a departure from yesteryear. Also, as in their other city hostels, the front desk was open 24 hours a day.
Most hostels now have websites and the hostel organizations provide locator maps. They all offer the convenience of advance reservations. Even though we were traveling early in the season in May, we took advantage of that in the two SYHA hostels, mainly to secure a private room. In the busier seasons it would be wise to book ahead. Where we stayed, dorm beds started around $20, private rooms ranged from $40 to $67 for starting prices. And vital for cyclists, each of the hostels provided secure storage overnight for our bikes. We had no need for the sleeping bags that we brought; linens and blankets were provided.
Yes, times have changed – for the better. Hostels were a big step up from camping and far more interesting than blasé motel rooms. We may no longer be youth, but next time we cycle abroad we will definitely be staying in hostels.
Molly Brewer Hoeg is a freelance writer living in Duluth, Minnesota. She is currently writing a book titled America at 12 Miles an Hour about her experiences bike touring with her husband. You can also read more of her work on her website, Superior Footprints. Her husband Rich is a photographer and birder. His work can be found here.Tweet Print
Words by Molly Brewer Hoeg, photos by Molly Brewer Hoeg and Rich Hoeg
Planning a cycling tour often involves a touch of ingenuity. Having recently relocated back to Duluth Minnesota, my husband, Rich, and I resumed our love affair with Lake Superior and dreamed of doing the famed Circle Tour by bicycle. But the Trans-Canada Highway along the northeastern side of the lake was notorious for its hilly, two-lane, no-shoulder, logging-truck-laden stretch. It wasn’t the stuff for my first cycling tour. After all, Rich was hoping to get me hooked on touring, not scare me away from it.
Enter Rich’s unique solution – cycle the western half of the lake and use the Isle Royale backpacker ferries to shuttle across the middle of Lake Superior. The result was a 9-day, 500-mile tour, hugging the scenic shores of the Big Lake.
Circling counter-clockwise, we started on the southern shore of the lake through Wisconsin, arching up into the Bayfield Peninsula. Tiny harbor towns dot the western side of that spit of land, including eclectic Cornucopia. Small shops line the waterway which is home to fishing vessels in the slip behind. Our first overnight was in Bayfield, a popular tourist town rich in restaurants, sailboats and artsy shopping opportunities.
Moving into Upper Michigan, we passed through the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. We had miles of tree-lined roads to ourselves, emerging at the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula. In Ontonagon, on we ate at a small diner which served the best beef pasties we’d ever tasted and relaxed on the quiet sand beach behind our motel.
Using the ferry meant traveling to the top of the Keweenaw Peninsula. It could easily be skipped if circling the entire lake, but it would be a travesty to miss. Part way up, Houghton is situated on a waterway that cuts through the peninsula. Leaving town, we followed a quiet byway next to that passage. Reaching Lake Superior once again, we turned up the western side where we followed local roads immediately adjacent to the water. The sunshine and lack of wind made it easy to love the route. Following a short but steep climb inland, we returned to the shore in time to find the Jam Pot. Run by Ukrainian Catholic monks, the tiny bakery features decadent breads and muffins as well as jams made from local berries. It was a necessary rest and refuel stop. Just beyond, we ogled their ornate onion-topped monastery on the lakeshore.
Sleeping adjacent to the water in Copper Harbor, I could hear the wind whipping the lines against the sailboat masts throughout the night. I should have registered its meaning. Big waves were building up out on Lake Superior. I had trained well for the 70-mile days of cycling on this trip, but nothing prepared me for the voyage across the lake.
Boarding the Isle Royale Queen IV, we were in the company of hearty outdoor folk. The 81-foot-long passenger-only ferry held 100 passengers, all bound for Isle Royale – a National Park off the Minnesota/Ontario border of Lake Superior dedicated entirely to hiking and backpacking. The only exception is the National Park lodge on the northeast end of the island, a pricey but comfortable alternative to camping or rustic cabins. With no roads, and use of bikes prohibited on the island, we had to secure special permission in advance to transport our bikes on the ferries. The crew hoisted them gear and all to the top deck, where we watched to make sure they were well secured for the passage.
The 4-hour trip across 55 miles of open water was a bouncy affair. Rich was in his element, riding in the open bow dodging the crashing waves. As we tacked through the rough waters, we alternately rocked from side to side then front to back. I had a less glorious trip, clinging to the back railing watching the horizon in an attempt to control my nausea. It was a challenge given my propensity to sea sickness. Next time I will consider a more stable alternative, the Ranger III, a much larger National Park Service ferry from Houghton. But not without first cycling the northern section of the peninsula, which can be done via a circle route.
Once on Isle Royale, I was grateful for the comfortable bed in the lodge, and slept off my queasiness before setting out to do a little hiking and canoeing. Isle Royale is 45 miles long by nine miles at its widest. It boasts 165 miles of hiking trails, including a 40-mile trail running from end to end. In one afternoon, we could only get a taste of the island’s unspoiled environment. Now, with more experience behind us and having added camping gear to our tours, I would opt for a more authentic island experience and camp in a wilderness site.
The only blight on my island stay was the reality that I faced another ferry ride in the morning. But that trip was smooth sailing. The Voyager II serves as the mail boat as well as hiker transport. So the first portion of the journey was spent hopping between points the length of the island to pick up or deliver both. The actual lake crossing to Grand Portage, Minnesota was only two hours out of the total six hour voyage. We landed mid-afternoon, with just enough time to cycle to Grand Marais before a raging thunderstorm struck. Timing is everything.
Our final two days took us down the North Shore of Lake Superior on Scenic 61. We were on familiar territory, and took advantage of the Gitchi Gami State Trail for bicycles on the completed portions. There was plenty of time to stop at our favorite state parks dotting the shore, savoring the fact that cyclists get in for free.
Choosing Canal Park and the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge for our finishing line in Duluth, we were greeted by family and friends to celebrate completing our tour, just as an ore boat passed under the bridge. Quizzed immediately about the trip, I answered without hesitation – I was hooked. I couldn’t wait to do more. 10,000 miles of cycle touring later, I still look back fondly on our modest beginnings. And I’m still eager to do it again.
Molly Brewer Hoeg is a freelance writer living in Duluth, Minnesota. She is currently writing a book titled America at 12 Miles an Hour about her experiences bike touring with her husband. You can also read more of her work on her website, Superior Footprints. Her husband Rich is a photographer and birder. His work can be found here.
Words by Chris Klibowitz, photos by Brandon Priesont
Staring out the train window as the central California landscape slides by, Brandon Priesont contemplates his next move. He was supposed to be painting his new condo this week. Instead, at the last minute, he hitched a ride with a friend to San Francisco, and is riding his bicycle home to Los Angeles. This train ride was semi-unexpected—with Highway 1 closed in Big Sur, this detour made the most sense. When he disembarks in San Luis Obispo, he’ll still be roughly 200 miles from home, but he’s in no rush. Time and money are two things he’s got plenty of this week.
In 2016, Priesont, an account manager in Southern California, and his co-workers at the British Columbia-based nutrition company Vega exceeded their annual sales goals and earned their incentive. The lump-sum bonus might seem a bit standard, but it came with this additional week of vacation in May, during which the company is encouraging its 201 employees to live—and share—their “Best Life Week,” whatever that might mean to them. Some stayed home, some pursued dreams, many traveled. Priesont decided to have an adventure by the seat of his pants, relying on minimal planning, his legs, and spotty cell service.
When asked why the change of plans from painting, Priesont replies, “I remembered that we as a company are all about pushing ourselves past our comfort zone. Plus, when you work for a company full of incredibly fit and talented people, you sort of feel obligated to one-up a bit,” Adding, “No one wants to see pictures of my freshly painted walls.”
Words by Jeffrey Stern
As our population grows, it becomes increasingly clear that alternative modes of transportation are the way of the future – what better way to travel than by combining two of the best ways to get out of your car, slow down and see the relatively close world around you in one trip?
Whether you are going for a long weekend or just an out and back in one day, multimodal travel is becoming a huge hit amongst a wide demographic of cyclists. Touring is fun, but can require huge time commitments for longer trips. With nearly 150,000 miles of train tracks covering the lower 48, the options are endless no matter where you live or how far you want to go. The best part is that if you plan properly and keep yourself within a couple hours distance from the nearest train or metro line, home is never more than a peaceful ride aboard a railcar away.
Another perk of this type of travel is you can switch up the order; instead of riding away from home, you could take the train to a specified stop and distance, then point your compass in the direction of home and pedal away.
If cycling first and taking the train home, I’d recommend bringing a couple items that can make your trip back more pleasurable.
A frame, handlebar, small backpack or larger seat bag are normally plenty for a day or even two. There are a few essentials you should bring along for your journey to increase your comfort when out of the saddle. Beyond the essentials to get you through any type of mechanical issue, a light pair of shorts (or even athletic pants), sandals and a comfortable shirt should make your journey on the train home exponentially more enjoyable.
Some my best thinking occurs when pedaling away into the distance, so I’ve often found a small book or pad for jotting down notes, anecdotes or thoughts is a great compliment to slower paced journeys like these.
Another element that can make these trips even more dynamic is inviting a friend or two! It’s amazing the connection you can build with others when exploring new areas and traveling in different ways. The ability to share experiences with friends, family and other bike lovers can only enhance the overall success of the trip. If you first trip is a success that you and your friends can’t stop talking about, the likelihood of planning round two is increased.
Most small hotels carry the essential toiletries and you can wash your kit overnight in the sink, so before you know it, you’ll be planning a two-day multimodal adventure – the freedom you’ll feel away from all your ‘things’ at home will be worth it’s weight in gold and have you gleaming from ear to ear. The best part, is there is little to no planning required and any type of bike setup can work. There is no need to go out and spend hundreds of dollars on touring gear and the likes.
The only thing holding you back is your imagination with the trips. Well, I suppose your fitness too. But that will build as your venture to further and further stops along the railways. Imagine all the adventures you’ll have and stories you’ll have to tell!
What about you? Have you ever been on a bike trip that involved the train? What was your experience? Do you have helpful tips for anyone who would like to try it? Tell us in the comments!
Editor’s Note: Different trains and locations have different rules for taking your bike onboard. Research your particular area and train line before making bike trip plans. You can find information on bringing your bike onboard on the Amtrak website.
We all know bicycles are a great way to explore. From the other side of town to the other side of the world, they can take you places you never dreamed of. But not every journey needs to include sleeping on the ground and eating dehydrated food. Each bicycle ride is a chance for exploration through the wider world and within yourself. In this issue we celebrate some of the world’s best destinations for cycling, both very near and very far.
Since the United States began to relax the hurdles a traveler was required to clear before visiting Cuba, cyclists have been flocking to the Caribbean island in search of new frontiers. For contributor Colt Fetters it was a chance to explore the bond between himself and his partner as well as the hills and valleys of a new place.
If you’re interested in visiting Cuba yourself you’re going to want to read the piece by Ashley Lance and Daniel Carter that walks you through the process of visiting this summer’s hottest destination.
Cuba isn’t the only spot south of the border that is attracting waves of bicycle travelers. Nearly 100 of them gathered for the first group start along the new Baja Divide route along the Baja California peninsula. Meandering 1,700 miles southward along dirt roads and taco stops, it is captured beautifully by the photographs of Gabriel Amadeus Tiller.
Bicycle tourism isn’t just for the folks on the road, it can have a significant impact on the communities they visit. Unlike a driver who zips through town, a cyclist is far more likely to stop and spend money, especially on food! See some examples of towns that are thriving by welcoming bike travelers.
In our product reviews section we rounded up some of the best gear for hauling yourself and your gear on journeys short and long. Find some cool bikes designed for travel as well as some of the latest racks and bags.
I hope this issue inspires you to explore a little more yourself. It doesn’t have to be an exotic destination halfway around the globe, just a different part of town or maybe aboard a different kind of bike. Cruise through the docks down by the waterfront. See how high you can ride on that nearby mountain. Bring your bike with you on vacation. You might discover something totally new or you might discover something in yourself that’s been there all along.
Finally, I must announce the end of one adventure and the beginning of another. As you read this, I have moved on to a new job and must deliver the sad news that this will be the final print issue of Bicycle Times for a while. But the spirit of the community that has coalesced around it is going strong, and Bicycle Times will continue both online and in our hearts.
I hope you keep reading and keep enjoying your Bicycle Times.
-Adam Newman, Editor-in-Chief
You can buy this issue and more in our online store.Tweet Print
Looking for the perfect bike that provides the freedom to roam aimlessly regardless of the terrain ahead? Look no further, the Ritchey Break-Away Ascent may be your answer. It’s exactly what a bike should be, a do-all, go anywhere means for adventure. This steel-framed beauty relegates both one trick ponies and niche categories.
The heart and soul to the Break-Away Ascent is the custom, lightweight Ritchey Logic TIG-welded tubing paired with a relaxed geometry and ability to run up 700×40 mm or 27.5×2.1 inch tires.
Add the travel-friendly break-away compression system and you have yourself a versatile bike that’s capable of traveling the world with you as your checked luggage.
The Ritchey Break-Away Ascent is available to the masses only as a frameset, with an included soft-sided travel bag for $1,650. For testing purposes, ours arrived loaded with Ritchey WCS bits including the new VentureMax adventure drop bar, 27.5×2.1 Shield tires mounted on Vantage II wheels, a SRAM Force 2×11 drivetrain, and BB7 mechanical disc brakes.
The frame utilizes simple technology such as the highly-praised, threaded 68 mm bottom bracket, 27.2 mm seatpost and a post-mount disc brake mount. All of these should be easily sourced in any bike shop, letting you to get back on your journey quickly and with ease should any mechanicals derail you.
Sounds too good to be true, right? Check out our full review of this steel framed travel companion in the upcoming issue of Bicycle Times #46. Subscribe now so that you don’t miss out on an issue!Tweet Print
Jrdn Freelove is kind of famous in our community. This past summer he rode about 7,200 miles in a little over five months, crossing the USA and back again in a big loop, passing through 25 states. This brings his tally of cross-country trips up to seven—all but one of them solo.
Jrdn has been a fixture in the Portland bike community since before there ever was a Portland bike community. He’s not an activist so much as a socialite, and everybody I know knows him. And I think everybody they know knows him, too, and whenever anyone talks about Jrdn they can’t help but smile. The thing about Jrdn is, he treats everybody like family. He makes you feel special. His southern drawl is warm and inviting as home-baked pie. He looks you in the eye and he’s interested in what you’re doing. He loves asking questions. He’s quirky and humble and surly sometimes, and there’s nobody else even remotely like him.
And Jrdn loves bicycles. Everything about them: the frames, the history, the process of making them and painting them, their aesthetics and functionality, old parts, new parts, gear ratios (half-step!), wheel sizes, and on and on. But what he loves most about them is riding them. Day trips for sure. But his greatest love is touring. I sat down with Jrdn and asked him about this latest cross-country trip. If there’s one thing Jrdn loves to do besides ride bikes, it’s to talk about bikes. And drink beer. Strong beer. He had some tough times on this most recent trip, but he stuck it out, and I wanted to get the full story.
“Jrdn,” I ask, “Why do you do this? Why do you do these crazy long bike trips?”
“Because I love it,” he says without hesitation. “There is nothing like being on the road, in the groove of things. You’ve got your house, you’ve got your kitchen, you’ve got your transportation, you’re dialed in. You know how to take care of yourself.” He thinks for a minute and goes on. “Life gets real simple. You’ve got three things that you have to think about every day.” He puts up one finger and says, “Where am I going to go,” two fingers, “What am I going to eat,” and three, “Where am I going to sleep.” He holds the three fingers there for affect and adds, “Beyond that, you’re just taking it all in, dealing with your daily contingencies of weather and so on.”
I ask him, “What’s the hardest part of traveling by bike, and traveling solo? Do you get lonely?”
“Everybody asks me the same questions,” he says. “Do I get lonely? How many flats did I get? How do I afford it? Do I get bored?” He shifts in his seat and takes a drink of the beer sitting in front of him. Terminator Stout. “Well,” he says, “I don’t get bored and I don’t get lonely. I love being alone. I love to just think about things. After a while on the road my thoughts slow down and my body’s working and my thoughts just flow. Like anything though, there are good days and bad days. It’s all mental, and that’s the hardest part of bike touring.
“People always ask me, don’t you get tired? Well, yeah I get tired. I just rode my hundred pound bike up a mountain for six hours. What do you think? But it’s easy with the body. You listen to it, feed it when you’re hungry, and when you’re tired, you rest.
“But it’s not like that with the mind. With the mind it can be a real struggle. When the weather is bad for days and days and you’ve got a ripping headwind it can feel like the whole universe is against you. It can really get you down. And when your head’s not in it, it can make the whole thing seem impossible. You don’t want to go on. But what are you going to do, quit? I mean, you can’t just sit there.”
“So Jrdn, what was a low point for you on this trip?” I asked him. “I know you had a rough go the first few hundred miles. Tell me about that
He laughs, and says, “More like the first couple thousand miles. I got hit by a car in Phoenix. It’s a terrible place to ride. I just wanted out of there. It was at a stoplight, a big intersection with six-lane roads. Three cars collided; one caromed off another and hit me, threw me 30 feet and dragged my bike along the curb. I don’t remember flying, but after I landed I looked up and my bike was down over there and three of my panniers were lying in the road. I sat there on the curb and everything got real quiet for a minute. I checked myself over, nothing seemed broken, no bones anyway. I had some scrapes, but I was all right, physically. Mentally, though, that messed me up for a while. You know, not one person ever apologized for hitting me. Nothing.”
“And what happened to your bike?”
“It broke off one of my brake studs, ruined a tire and scraped up a brake lever. There was a guy, calls himself the Frame Doctor. Igleheart found him (Christopher Igleheart of Igleheart Custom Frames and Forks iglebike.com) I didn’t have a smart phone when I started this trip. I’ve never wanted one, never needed one. But this trip was different. The last time I did this trip was four years ago, and ever since then there just aren’t any phone books anymore. Nobody has them. I used to look up campgrounds and bike shops and all that. Now everything is electronic. Now I’m a convert. You pretty much have to carry a smart phone if you don’t want to have to stop and have people look stuff up for you on their computer.
“I just had a flip phone, and anyway I called Igleheart in Portland and he got on the computer and found this Frame Doctor in Phoenix. It was great; the guy showed up in his truck, picked me up and took me back to his place, welded my brake boss back on and sent me on my way. After the accident my back was kind of sore for a while, but I got through. Advil became my friend. I ate it like candy.
“After getting hit was the hardest part of the trip. I was sore and then I got into Texas and Oklahoma in May and it got hot. And I mean hot, like it wouldn’t let up. Man, I was already down, my sore back and my head just not in it. The heat just about killed me. I almost called it quits a couple of times. I lost my groove when I got hit and I just couldn’t get it back. The other thing, I couldn’t find a good road with a shoulder. It was cut with those, what do you call them?”
“Rumble strips,” I said.
“Yeah, rumble strips. Unridable. So you’re either in the road or in the ditch. I wish somebody would map that on GPS or something, have an app for it. Or even a paper map that told you which roads had shoulders and if they were smooth or not.”
“So Jrdn,” I said, “you never answered your own question. How many flats did you get?”
“Six flats, all by the time I reached Phoenix. I had to replace a tire after the accident, but then for the whole rest of the trip, not one flat. Pretty incredible. I did change both tires when I arrived to Virginia. I mailed a pair of tires to my mom’s house and swapped when I arrived.”
“Which tires were you using?”
“Schwalbe Marathon Supreme on the front. Marathon Plus on the rear. The Supreme surprised me; it’s such a great tire. But I couldn’t believe I didn’t get one flat for the last five or six thousand miles. The Marathon Plus doesn’t have as nice a ride, but it’s bombproof. Heavy, but almost indestructible.”
“What kind of saddle?”
“I’ve ridden Brooks saddles on all my cross country trips. I like the B-17. It fits me. I had to retire my Brooks after this trip. I sweated so much going through the South, I think that really finished it. This saddle has over 20,000 miles on it.
“So tell us about the bike.”
“On this trip I rode my Ira Ryan touring bike. When I was 40 years old I rode cross-country on my Vanilla. It was a great bike, but when I got it I didn’t know what I wanted. I based the design on a Zeleris race bike that I’d toured on in Europe in the 80s. I didn’t know any better. Riding cross-country on my Vanilla I really paid attention, and when I got back I went to Ira and told him I wanted to run bigger tires, have a longer wheel base and stouter tubes. We tweaked the geometry so I was more upright. And here it is. It’s heavier than my Vanilla, but it’s a good bike. It’s solid.
“I don’t know that I’d change too much. Disc brakes maybe? I’ve got this new Page Street bike, the Outback. It fits big, big tires, and has disc brakes. I think from now on I’ll always tour with a generator hub that powers lights and has a charging system for a smart phone. I’ve gone completely over to the Dark Side. Before this trip I was a stubborn Luddite. Several things happened on this trip that forced me to reconsider, and I have to say I have seen the light. I am a convert. I’ll still use paper maps whenever I tour because I like to have that global perspective. You can’t get that on a 3-inch screen. But I also need to be able to locate campgrounds and bike shops and look at the weather report and that’s what the smart phone is for. The weather was really extreme on this trip, and newspapers are hard to come by. I need some way to get the forecast.
“I don’t need a lot of money. I rented my house, which is paid for. I don’t have any other debt. My truck was paid for in the 80’s. I started this trip with a budget of $20 a day. You can go less, cooking all your own meals, bush camping, staying away from pay campgrounds. But eating a good meal in a roadside cafe gives you the chance to meet people, talk with them and ask questions, get a flavor for the place you’re in. And camping where I can take a shower at the end of the day, or by a stream if I can find one so I can bathe, that helps me keep my head straight. Wash off the sweat. I sleep better, and getting good rest is as important to me as food.
“After the accident in Phoenix and when it was so hot I allowed $30 a day if that was going to help me be more comfortable. That’s a hotel stay every now and then, or maybe two meals out and a campground, plus snacks. And that did it. Or at least it helped. I don’t mind taking loans if I have to. I’ll work when I get back. I’ll pay this trip off and save for the next one. I don’t make a lot of money, but I keep my priorities focused. No wife, no kid, no heroin habit. I tell myself I can do this. I make it happen.
“The U.S. is such a stunningly gorgeous place. I love it here. And it’s so big you’ll never see it all, no matter how many bike tours you go on. It’s like a big book, every tour just opens it up a bit more and you learn about some new place where you want to go next time. There’s just so much—so many great places to ride.”
“Any advice for others?”
“I think the biggest hurdle for someone new to bike touring is just getting out and doing it. But it’s not that hard. Like you can plan and plan and worry about the shape you’re in and where you’re going to go and safety and what all you’re going to take, but you just can’t figure everything out up front, you’ve got to let that go. At some point you’ve got to load your bags, stick them on your bike and start pedaling. And that’s it. You’re just going on a bike ride.
“I’m not saying don’t prepare, it’s just that, you’re going to figure it out. Start small, a short trip—one or two nights out. Pretty quick you’re going to figure out what you need and what’s dead weight. And you’re going to make mistakes. It’s inevitable. That’s another thing. Accept your mistakes. Learn from them. Don’t get down on yourself because it’s just going to happen. I’ve been touring for a long time and I still f— things up and you’ve just got to learn to let that stuff go. It comes back to keeping your head on straight.
“I see these old guys out there, or hear stories about an 80-year-old lady going on a bike tour, riding cross country. I want to be that person. I want to be 80 and still doing it. I hear these stories and I think, well if they can do it, I can do it. And I will.
Jrdn, in jumpsuit, with Christopher Igleheart.
Jrdn lives right around the corner from my workshop, so I have the pleasure of seeing him regularly. He loves to come in and see what bike projects we’re working on or to borrow our latest bike magazines. He’s the only person I know who reads all the articles. And you get the impression that he makes the rounds of every bike shop in town.
A standard dictionary definition of fame is, “the condition of being known or talked about by many people, especially on account of notable achievements.” Riding bikes back and forth across the country is certainly a notable achievement, but that’s not why Jrdn is known and talked about. It’s kind of beside the point, really.
Jrdn’s most notable achievement is just that he’s Jrdn. And when he comes around the shop he doesn’t just come to look at the bikes. He puts his hands all over them, sometimes in ways that could make a young person blush. In fact it’s so commonplace for Jrdn to fondle bikes that it inspired some anonymous person to have stickers made that say, “Jrdn Approved.”
These stickers have been sighted all over town, but nobody seems to know who actually made them. They’re on the beer taps at Velo Cult Bike shop. They’re on bike staples everywhere. I’ve seen them on street signs and public bathroom mirrors, on the picnic table up in Forest Park. Someone even stuck one on our workshop door. I ask him, “So, who made the Jrdn Approved stickers?”
“I am blissfully ignorant of this knowledge,” Jrdn says, smiling, clearly pleased about it.
“No, but really,” I ask. “Who do you think?”
“I’ve got it narrowed down to about eight people,” he says. “I think it’s either Igleheart or Kevin, maybe. It could be Smitherman. I asked Kevin and he was cagey about it, and I know he’s not telling me the whole truth. Or maybe, it could be you.”
“Me?” I say. “How so?” I know if he’s blaming me he’s really reaching.
“I have my reasons,” he says. “There are a couple other people I suspect could be in on it. But I just don’t know.” He’s still smiling. It’s the mystery that’s so fascinating, as the myth of the man grows.Tweet Print
Sometimes, you need a full year to plan an overnight.
Last fall, my uncle William and I had succeeded in talking each other into an off-road bikepacking trip (and acquiring a bunch of cool new gear), so he went out into Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest to find a route and a camping spot. I eventually had to cancel and the trip—which would be a first for each of us—was shelved.
At the end of July, we finally made it happen. We started with a shakedown ride, a bowl of my aunt’s delicious homemade chili and a sendoff from my 16-year-old cousin that consisted of an eye roll. Our two-day ride began above 10,000 feet and took us even higher over steep, chunky Jeep roads and along barely-visible singletrack before reaching Heart Lake. We pitched our tents in a field of wildflowers and proceeded to catch up on about 10 years of not seeing each other very much.
Just one night? One has to start somewhere and one night is absolutely worthwhile. Philosopher Alain de Botton explained in his book “The Art of Travel” that appreciating and holding onto small experiences with nature was an ideal of poet William Wordsworth. Even though two or three days vacation can’t solve all of your problems, they can reside in your mind as a comfort.
The poet celebrated what he called “spots of time.” Those are, essentially, scenes that may have seemed minor in the moment but that nonetheless stick with us, and that we return to in our memories for contentment when everyday life feels crushing. Daffodils moving in the wind; the smell of a stand of pine trees—anything is up for grabs.
There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue…
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.
— William Wordsworth, re-printed in de Botton’s “The Art of Travel”
That, to me, is the value of these experiences. Sure, they are fun to share on Instagram, but in thinking back to my first backpacking trip 20 years ago as a comparison, I realize how many times I have called upon that memory and savored it fondly. That is what I know I will do with this trip, and likely every one after, even those that inevitably don’t go well.
That is the excellence of bicycles: they give us spots of time. Even if you simply ride a couple of miles to work and back every day, it’s a unique moment in your 9-to-5 or equivalent. Even if it’s just a one-night bikepacking outing, it’s a unique break in the regular routine of life.
I read recently (in relation cycling) that, essentially, the only rides worth remembering are the really difficult ones. Nah. Suffering certainly tightens memory’s grip, but so do beauty, camaraderie, relaxation, novelty. And fun. If you spend two days riding a bike with a giant grin plastered irremovably on your face, that ride is probably going to get filed away in a safe, accessible place.
I may not precisely recall every stream crossing, or how beautiful our tents looked set up in a field of flowers as the light of the sinking sun illuminated them in pinks and oranges, or how silly giddy my uncle and I both were when I busted out a SPAM single in the morning to fry up and share and we launched into a 30-minute conversation about different types of camp stoves and their merits, or how that kid backpacking with his mom brought a soccer ball and we could hear him kicking it in the distance as we rode away from camp.
I may not remember each of those things individually but, collectively, they will engrain themselves as a new spot of time in my memory, hopefully one that I get to hold onto. And, nothing could have motivated me more to go bikepacking than actually going bikepacking. When is my next trip? When and where can I go for two or three nights? How quickly can I start working my way up to an adventure that is classically “epic?” I knew from the first few pedal strokes that this Wyoming trip was just a beginning.
The outing had the enhanced glow of nostalgia because it took me back to the same mountain range where, at age 10, I followed the same Uncle William and my parents into the woods for my first backpacking trip. Twenty years on, it seems that neither one of us has fundamentally changed all that much, which was somewhat of an unexpected relief. There’s an indescribable comfort at being able to slip into familiarity with a kindred spirit, especially in the process of exploring a shared passion.
This isn’t where I tell you that you need to go out and do something like I did or that it was a big deal or that it wasn’t a big deal. There’s more than enough finger-wagging in the outdoor media about how you’re not doing it right but someone else is. We meticulously planned a one-night trip and only rode a handful of miles each way. Our way is certainly one way to do it. There are many others.
Define your love of cycling and the outdoors in whatever way you damn well please. That’s something I learned from Uncle William and have always admired. I appreciate that he doesn’t chase trends or exclusive toys. Besides, as he puts it, “if you want only expensive bikes, then you can’t have very many of them.”
So, I suppose I am going to tell you what to do, and that is this: Do what you want.
You can’t talk about bikepacking without talking about the bike. My Surly Pugsley has been a faithful friend now for the last three years and has broadened its usefulness from winter snow machine to adept touring rig.
Following my shakedown trip in Moab, I shod its stock 50-mm rims with 26×2.75 Surly Dirt Wizard tires, swapped in a Jones H-Bar up front and a Brooks Cambium saddle out back and called it good. I don’t yet know how the 100 mm bottom bracket width will affect my knees on longer journeys, but that width offers the benefit of preventing my legs from rubbing a stuffed frame bag.
I was extremely grateful for the stability, cushion and grip of extra-knobby, plus-ish tires paired to the great ride of a steel frame. The new crop of up-and-coming bikes designed around plus tires might seem like just a fad or a phase, but I don’t think I’ll ever do loaded, off-road touring on anything else. I’m sold. Now that some bike companies are turning to 26plus tires for smaller-frame and women’s-specific mountain bikes, I might have more tire options in the future.
Backpack: Water bladder, sleeping bag, rain cover for pack, ultralight wind vest, arm and leg warmers (the only items I did not use), wallet, phone, keys to my truck
Apidura seat pack: alcohol fuel stove and small fuel bottle, small cook pot, collapsible bowl that doubles as a tiny cutting board, titanium fork and spoon, waterproof matches, insulated mug, insulated vest, insulated jacket, rain jacket, small pack towel, spare clothing (socks, underwear, wool hat, warm gloves, baselayer tights, long-sleeve shirt) and camp shoes attached to the outside (Crocs clogs)
- TIP: Make sure you don’t strap so much on the top of the seat pack that you can’t get your rear back off the saddle on steep, loose descents.
Revelate Designs frame bag: toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, glasses, contact lens solution/case, wet wipes); breakfast (SPAM single, oatmeal, almond butter, instant coffee); dinner (freeze-dried backpacking meal); small bottle of cooking oil; bike-specific toolkit; spare tube; tire pump; ultralight one-person backpacking first aid kit; headlamp; camp knife; small roll of biodegradable toilet paper; pocket-sized sketchbook with pencil
Revelate Designs handlebar bag: one-person tent, ground cloth, tent poles/stakes, sleeping pad, camp pillow (the only thing I’d leave at home next time)
Fork-mounted dry bags (made by Salsa): Left: lunch/snacks (bagel, dried sausage, marinated green olives, dark chocolate-covered raisins, small container of peanut butter, Clif Bar energy food pouch-sweet potato flavor); Right: 1-liter water bottle, SteriPen for water purification
Revelate Designs stem bag: compact-ish camera (Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100), lip balm, DEET bug juice, sunscreen
Did I forget anything? Yep: a small flask of bourbon and an evening hot drink such as cocoa or decaf tea. Luckily for us both, my uncle brought fire starters (cotton balls rubbed with petroleum jelly) since everything around us was wet. A small folding saw would have been welcome for firewood gathering and trail clearing, but not necessary.
Illustrations: Chris Conlin
Originally published in Issue #41
What to do if you break a spoke
It depends on the ride. It’s all about being prepared. Ideally you’ll have a really tiny spoke wrench in your bag and you can loosen two nipples/spokes on opposite sides of the broken spoke. How do you know you’re loosening the nipple? Hold your hand on the spoke and either feel it increase or decrease in tension.
Wrap the broken spoke around a neighboring spoke if you can’t pull it out. If you have rim brakes, make sure your wheel can fit through the brake pads (since it is now out of true). Not all wheels can handle a broken spoke, however. Lower spoke count wheels (24 spokes and below) are a lot harder to fix in the field and require a phone call to someone. Additionally, proprietary wheels like paired spoke wheels and some proprietary spokes can’t be adjusted as easily.
If you’re touring, it helps if you have a few spare spokes and a little heartier of a truing wrench. If it’s a drive side spoke you’ll also need a cassette removal tool like the Stein mini lockring tool. Once the cassette is off you can replace the spoke bringing it as close to tension as you can.
— Jude Gerace, owner/founder of Sugar Wheel Works
What to do if you bonk
There are two goals I try to achieve when that sudden onset of energy-drain hits you like a ton of bricks. The first is to minimize the length and extremity of my ride as quickly as possible. The second is to take note of how you feel and more importantly how you recently felt so that you can be more aware of the signs that a “bonk” is coming. This is valuable because a “bonk” doesn’t actually hit you like that ton of bricks out of nowhere. There are signs, if you are listening well enough.
Priority number one is to get essential fuels back into the system to “unbonk.” Ideally you need simple sugars that are quickly metabolized. How you react to the initial onset will relate to how much you’ll need to consume. Normally one or two packages of energy chews is a solid option to get you back in the game.
However, it takes a while to recover from bonking. Once you’ve consumed essential carbs, it’s a waiting and survival game. This could take 5 to 30 minutes (if it works at all). Take extra care to observe how you feel during this whole process and try to recall the minute feelings you had just before you bonked. These “tells” are invaluable to learn for the future. Learning these tells well help you to avoid bonking entirely.
For me, I’ve come to learn that I typically feel a slight euphoria before I bonk. Shortly afterwards I start to feel my arms growing in weight. This is the tipping point for me and a moment when I can save face if timing, energy and strategy is employed tactfully. So get to know yourself when you bonk.
You will always run the risk of bonking, no matter how prepared and knowledgeable you are. So while you want to avoid bonking, when it happens, treat it as a learning experience, an invaluable one.
— Shawn Milne, former professional cyclist and current marketing specialist at Skratch Labs
What to do if you come across an injured person
The obvious first thing to do when you come up on an injured cyclist is to make sure the scene is safe. Ideally you are not moving an injured person unless you can do this without causing further harm. However, you might need to move someone out of harm’s way or protect them by signaling or warning oncoming traffic.
Then there is a standard basic life support sequence we use to check for threats to life. It’s an “ABC” approach familiar to people who have taken CPR or basic first aid courses. We check the “A” or airway and make sure air can move in and out of the lungs. There may be a need to clear the mouth of blood, vomit, broken teeth, or to position the patient on their side so they can breathe.
Next we check for “B”, breathing, and hopefully don’t need to perform mouth-to-mouth or mouth-to-mask breathing. The only first aid for broken ribs, which can cause pain and shortness of breath while the injured person tries to breath, is simple reassurance and support until help arrives.
The “C” or circulation step is to check for a pulse and to begin chest compressions if there is no pulse present. It’s also importantly a check for severe bleeding and stop it. Direct pressure on the site of the bleeding with a hand or better yet a piece of fabric or an actual wound dressing will stop more bleeding.
We can add a “D” and an “E” to this sequence as well. “D” is the assumption of a spine injury and protection of the spine by avoiding unneeded movement until help arrives. “E” reminds us to look at things that are bent, broken or out of place to find serious injuries and also reminds us to think about the environment. The cyclist who was warm in the saddle may quickly become cold on the pavement.
Ideally you now hear the wail of the siren signaling that help is on the way.
— Tod Schimelpfenig, curriculum director, NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute
How to avoid dangerous weather
Thunderstorms pose the biggest problems for cyclists in regards to dangerous weather. Thunderstorms occur during the times when most cyclists are most likely outside riding during the warm months. They can suddenly sneak up on you with little warning and produce a multitude of dangerous weather conditions.
Lightning: If you are caught outside in a thunderstorm, you want to minimize the possibility of being hit by lightning. If road riding and you have no shelter, find a low area and lay flat away from your bike and any tall objects. If mountain biking, seek shelter away from trees. Again, find a low area and lay flat or seek shelter in boulders if out in the woods.
Hail: Large hail can do considerable damage. If you are caught in a hail storm, keep your helmet on, it’s the best protection you have. Try to find some shelter like a bridge to hide under. If you are caught with no shelter, try to cover your body as best as possible with any protection like corn stalks or hay. Even tree branches covering your body will help protect you from hail. Stay away from your bike because of the threat of lightning.
Sudden Temperature Drops: Thunderstorms, the passage of cold fronts or higher elevations can mean sudden changes in temperatures and hypothermia. Check the weather before venturing out and have a rain jacket with you. It will keep you dry and also retain heat if temperatures drop.
If temperatures drop, try to minimize your speed so you don’t create excessive windchills on your body. You bike may actually start to shake as your body shivers. Pull back on your bike speed or even stop to allow warming to occur. You can even seek any debris, hay or grass along the road or trails that you can stuff into your shirt to give you protection from the cold temperatures.
Tornadoes: Seek shelter in a sturdy building or storm shelter. If you are caught in the open when a tornado is approaching, dismount your bike and seek shelter in a ditch, storm drain pipe or underpass. Keep in mind that if it’s raining hard, ditches and storm drains can fill up with water and underpasses are not always the safest place.
If in a forest mountain biking, seek a location that is below ground level like a stream or creek, or around boulders. Trees and branches will be coming down all around you so you need to cover yourself up and protect yourself for the debris. Keep your helmet on because it will provide some protection.
— Henry Margusity, senior meteorologist with AccuWeather.com
How to get un-lost
Every part of me wants to write a few paragraphs about good preparation as the best way to get “pre-un-lost,” but for now you’re lost. First and foremost, stop and take a deep breath. Don’t panic. Wrapping yourself around the axle only leads to bad decisions. Go back (mentally) to the last point you remember being un-lost. How far back was it? Is it short enough to ride or hike back to? Nine times out of 10 on the trip back you’ll discover your mistake and get back on track and be surprised you missed that turn.
The important takeaway here is keep it simple and stay based in solid fact. DO NOT start piling on bad decisions and end up on the cover of Bicycle Times as a tragedy story.
My second tip, and very related to the first, is to avoid groupthink. My company operates primarily self-guided tours and we get some of the craziest “we got lost” stories you’ll ever hear. So many of them are a result of groupthink: one or two guys start to create a story of where they are and what turn they took or didn’t take. We hear wild tales of “I knew the route was sorta SHAPED like this, so we veered in that SHAPE.”
Next thing you know you have 10 guys all headed in the same direction believing the story. Meanwhile, one of the guys in the back tells it later, “I knew what they were saying made no sense and I had the GPS, but I just went along with it.” Speak up and think critically of everyone’s ideas while staying respectful. You may completely disagree with another’s idea of where you are, but avoid infighting.
Finally, paper maps are light, cheap and the batteries never die. Just sayin’.
— Matt McFee, director of Hermosa Tours
What to do if you’re in an accident
- Call 911 for ambulance and police and wait for their arrival. If you are in no shape to do so, ask a bystander to do it.
- Don’t refuse medical assistance and say that you are fine—you’ll be pumped full of adrenaline and may not realize you are injured.
- Photograph any visible auto and bike damage, skid marks and accident debris.
- Photograph the driver’s insurance card and driver’s license, and write down the name, phone number, address and auto insurance information for the driver. If the driver refuses to cooperate, notify police.
- Don’t give any statements to the other party’s insurance company.
- Photograph and write down the make and model of the vehicle, as well as the license plate number.
- Don’t engage in any negotiations for compensation with the driver.
- Get names and contact information for all witnesses to the accident.
- Hire an attorney who has experience handling bicycle accident cases.
- Resist the urge to post details of the accident online. It will be scrutinized by the driver’s insurance company.
- Have a reputable bike shop document the damage to your bike. Also document damage to any other property involved, such as clothing, accessories, backpacks, etc.
— Marc S. Reisman, Esq.
10 more vital tips
Richard Belson, an instructor at the United Bicycle Institute, offered up some extra tips for cyclists. Find them here.
Photos: Emily Walley
Marin designed the Four Corners and Four Corners Elite for the daily commute and the weekend adventure, and it couldn’t be more on point. I’m testing the lower priced model, with an MSRP of $1100. It offers all the bells and whistles for fully-loaded touring in an affordable package. The Four Corners is an all-steel frame with mounts for a front and rear rack, fenders and three bottle cages.
Saddling up, I immediately noticed the upright riding position facilitated by the long headtube. The bars sit higher than what I’m used to and have a 20-degree flare to the drop. On other bikes, I’ve trended toward riding primarily on the hoods and tops, but the Marin’s upright position had me comfortably riding in the drops for long stretches of rolling hills and rail trails—a welcome change. The reach on the size small frame was a little long for me, so I put on a 20 mm shorter stem.
To get a sense of the bike’s touring capabilities, I added fenders and a front rack and loaded it down with gear for a mixed-surface tour from Cumberland, Maryland, to Pittsburgh. The ride included crushed limestone rail trail, rolling hard roads, dirt roads and railroad ballast. I carried my weight low on the front rack and the bike handled very well while weighted down.
On the small-sized frame, I was unable to include a water bottle underneath the downtube because it hit the fender. Though I haven’t tried yet, I’m speculating that the tire will come very close to hitting even a short bottle without fenders. On my trip, I used a stem-mounted cage for a third bottle.
The other two bottle mounts are placed so they’re easy to reach for day-to-day use, but they’re not in an ideal location for a frame bag. I zip-tied a cage lower on the downtube, closing up the unused space and allowing room for my frame bag.
I found the stock Schwalbe Silento 700c x 40 mm tires to be an appropriate spec, rolling well in a variety of terrain and adequately burly, so I wasn’t overly concerned with getting a flat. The Four Corners has clearance for up 45 mm tires with fenders or 29 x 2.1 knobby tires without fenders.
The Shimano Alivio 9-Speed with 12-36T gearing was adequate while weighted down over Pennsylvania’s rolling hills, but I’d go with a lower gear range for an extended, fully-loaded tour with sustained climbs.
I was thrilled with the stock WTB Volt Sport saddle. One of the biggest pains of rail trail riding are the long, flat sections of saddle time. The WTB is comfortable and supportive and I didn’t find myself sitting gingerly.
Look for the full review in an upcoming issue of Bicycle Times. Not subscribed? Sign up today for our email newsletter so you don’t miss stories like this one. Or, subscribe to the print magazine, where you can find the full review of this bike.
By Beth Puliti
Whether you’re headed out on a world tour or a weekend adventure, I have four words for you: be open to change.
Until you begin the physical act of pedaling your bicycle, any grand plans that you have made in your head are subject to change at any time for any reason. This is especially true when it comes to how far you expect to travel on a daily basis.
Before embarking on this open-ended bike tour, I planned my route based on how far I anticipated pedaling each day and how often I thought I should take a rest day. With these averages, I was able to loosely figure out where on the map I’d be at certain points in the year. Advantageous, sure, but not entirely accurate.
When I hit the pavement, myriad factors came into play each and every day that influenced and sometimes even changed my best-laid plans. Factors that hadn’t crossed my mind while sitting in front of the wood stove pouring over maps and journals of those who had gone before my husband and I. These factors became immediately apparent once on the road.
Factors like long stretches of rain in northern Italy and unending sections of flat highway in the central part of the country. Both had us hammering out way more miles than we had anticipated simply because the scenery around us either wasn’t interesting (or didn’t look so through the rain), and so we just kept plugging along without taking the time to stop. We arrived in Rome far earlier than planned, which allowed us to build in a visit with my relatives, something that wasn’t in our original plans, but turned out to be a personal highlight of the tour.
On the other hand, mechanicals, Mother Nature and ill-marked roads have slowed our pedaling too many times to count. In Thailand, a handful of flat tires sidelined us for much of the afternoon. In Turkey, a brutal headwind encountered during the first few days of entering the country nearly brought our progress to a stop. And in Italy, a wrong turn got us lost on unmarked roads in a national forest for hours. In all of these cases, we covered far shorter ground than expected that day.
Being open to change allows you to take wrong turns, broken bike parts and bad weather in stride so you can focus on things other than your daily mileage count—like the friendly people you’re probably meeting, the incredible food you’re probably eating and the new places you’re probably seeing. These are the reasons you decided to travel by bike anyway, right?
OK, so you’re not going to wreck yourself over a silly little thing like daily distances. What about other preconceived plans you made? Perhaps you decided you would exclusively camp on your tour, but after a few nights in a tent you realize you don’t really like it. Fellow bike tourers, it’s OK to change the plan to what you feel comfortable doing.
Time on the road makes you realize that many of the best experiences will occur on the days when things don’t go entirely as expected. More miles, fewer miles, sleeping under the stars or under a roof—at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. What matters is finding a groove that works for you. One that’s not too fast, nor too slow to enjoy the world from behind your handlebars.
I’ve been trying to figure out where to mount my panniers. Front or rear, low or high, a mixture of both? I see all kinds of systems being used for touring, bikepacking and whatever else, but I can’t find a definitive guide to where and why.
Why is it we need to be sure of anything or everything? Is your bike going to spontaneously combust and eject you into a tar pit if your bags aren’t placed exactly to the whims of the latest Internet adventure stud/Peter Pan/Instagram hero? No it won’t.
You have all the evidence you need to decide on this. Thousands of dudes (both male and female) that dressed and groomed like it was the ‘70s, because it was ‘70s, crossed the U.S. with heavy military surplus gear stuffed into rear panniers and a handlebar bag. Is this an ideal system? Probably not. Does it work. Hell yes! There is tall-tubesock and running shorts bedecked evidence everywhere you look.
Look, if you load up a bike, it will change the handling, no matter where you mount your bags. Maybe your bike has the proper combo of bar height, fork offset, frame stiffness and head tube angle (and any number of X-factors no one can quite figure out) to make it ride like a dream with low-mount panniers. The problem is, you won’t know unless you try.
And most people load up their stuff the way that seems the most practical/affordable/cool-looking and over the course of a tour become so attuned to the vagaries of the bike that a Zen-like calm replaces the worry that bags mounted someplace else may be the final key to cycling nirvana.
It is much more important to keep your kit clean, dry and secure. Make sure your bags are attached to your rack well enough to bomb down that rocky two-track to that hidden swimming hole.
Buckle your buckles, tighten your straps, keep heavy stuff low, your camera close at hand and your cell phone buried deep under that big bag of gorp. The rest will take care of itself.
This Q&A originally appeared in Bicycle Times Issue #37. Support your favorite independent cycling magazine and order a subscription today. Beardo is counting on you.
From Issue #37
Words and Photos by Emily Walley and Justin Steiner
The thought of committing to a four-day, three-night touring adventure aboard the Salsa Powderkeg with almost zero tandem experience was a little bit intimidating. Would we be able to comfortably carry all of our gear? How would we manage some of the rougher dirt roads and trails we planned to traverse in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest?
Despite these reservations, our excitement to share this new experience was thrilling, and we quickly got to work acclimating to life aboard a bicycle built for two. Not long into the first road ride, our confidence swelled as it became apparent we were aboard a very competent and capable rig. But, we also realized that we needed to recalibrate our approach slightly. As independent cyclists we’ve grown accustomed to making forceful and sometimes aggressive maneuvers on the bike. Those inputs don’t jive well in tandem land. Subtle inputs and smooth transitions are the name of the game.
With one road ride under our belt, we jumped to the next logical step: mountain biking. On the Powderkeg, our standard weekly Thursday ride became a whole new adventure and a barrel of fun. Dropping into the first trail was a little rough as trail features we haven’t thought about in years suddenly tested our capability. We were both tense and our inputs were fighting each other. It’s amazing how much influence the stoker has on the bike, despite the lack of ability to steer. The stoker’s wide bar provided a lot of leverage. We occasionally found it helpful for Emily to move her hands to the center of the bars, minimizing her upper body input. Riding as a stoker requires a lot of leg input and a very relaxed upper body.
Not long after we ran poor Emily into the first tree, forcing us to jointly dismount, we began to relax and started into a rhythm together. Amazingly, that first near-crash (and the many that followed) made us realize abrupt dismounts were totally manageable, as was dabbing a foot when necessary to right the ship. We found it helpful for the stoker to remain on the bike and let the captain dab whenever possible. This way Emily could help propel the bike forward on an ascent or technical terrain while Justin resumed his position. From that point on, we were golden, at least once the captain came to terms with just how wide he had to turn so as to not run his stoker into any more trees.
Throughout that first mountain bike ride, we continued to be amazed by the capability of the Powderkeg. With such a long wheelbase the stability is incredible. As long as we kept the pedals turning, we could crank, albeit slowly, up just about anything. We knew we were ready to tackle some reasonably rough and tumble terrain, so long as it didn’t involve a lot of big rocks and logs as it’s awfully easy to high-center.
A Blessing and a Curse
With our confidence high and our communication dialed, we began planning and packing for our tour of a portion of the more than 500,000-acre Allegheny National Forest (ANF). Like most of our National Forests, the ANF is a “working forest,” meaning managed natural gas and oil extraction as well as selective timber harvests provide operational revenue and economic impact within the local community.
While the harvesting of natural resources may be a point of contention now, this forest’s history is far uglier than today’s sustainability managed approach. By the early 1900’s, nearly all of this land, and most all of Pennsylvania for that matter, was clear cut by private companies trying to meet burgeoning demand for lumber for everything from construction to wood pulp for paper to wood chemical production—acetic acid, wood alcohol and acetate of lime. During the Civil War, tanneries used immense amounts of hemlock bark to keep up with leather production.
After the trees were gone, the land was abandoned. In 1923, the Federal Government purchased this land and established the ANF, as authorized by the Weeks Act of 1911. At the time, locals called this shrub-filled wasteland the “Allegheny Brush-patch.”
Unfortunately, when the Federal Government purchased the ANF, funding limitations lead to purchasing only the surface rights. Ninety-three percent of the ANF’s subsurface rights are privately held, which has led to extensive oil and natural gas extraction. In 1981, this region produced roughly 17 percent of Pennsylvania’s total crude oil output.
While there are many undeniable downsides to these industries, one of the upsides comes in the form of forest roads. After decades of drilling and logging, forest roads criss-cross a majority of the forest. Some are open to vehicular traffic, others have long since been closed to motor vehicles. Some barely even exist.
So long as you’re away from extraction traffic, these roads are perfect for touring. You’re off the beaten path, but the terrain is mellow enough that you’re able to comfortably cover ground on a loaded touring bike. But, it’s also just technical enough to keep things interesting. For the most part, forest roads tend to be well signed, so they’re easily navigable. For this trip, the ANF’s administrative map proved to be the right tool for for planning and navigating. These administrative maps show all of the forest roads, whether they’re gated or open to the public. Online maps and gazetteers can’t always be trusted when it comes to showing which roads are navigable and which aren’t.
After spending way too many hours staring at maps drawing and redrawing routes, we settled on three beautiful, remote locations to camp and connected the dots with as much dirt and as little hike-a-bike as possible.
Packing turned out to be easier than feared. With racks and panniers at both ends, a frame bag up front, one Salsa Anything Cage and Anything Bag, six water bottles and a snack bag, we were set. (Visit bicycletimesmag.com/tandem_anf to see detailed setup info.) Here, the Powderkeg again impressed us with its versatility and plethora of options for mounting and hauling gear.
On the Road
Day one consisted of a long, long climb from the reservoir’s edge up a drainage to the top of the plateau, rolling ridgetop pavement, and a steep descent back to the water’s edge to a boat-in-only campsite. Toward the end of the day, we experienced the first of many mini-frustrations. Know how you tend to get fidgety toward the end of a long day in the saddle? Well, that mutual fidgeting and fatigue isn’t the best for morale when every little wiggle and wobble is transmitted to your partner in crime.
After a fitful night’s sleep trying to keep a portly raccoon out of our food stash—Blackburn’s awesome Outpost Top Tube bag may be water resistant, but it’s not coon-proof—we made a fatigued pushed up out of the valley.
In the late afternoon, we rolled into a beautiful, secluded campsite upstream from a fish hatchery. Water rumbling over a small dam provided the perfect soundtrack for a good night’s sleep.
Day three took us to Heart’s Content Scenic Area, one of approximately 20 stands of old-growth forest remaining in all of Pennsylvania. Walking through this forest, it’s hard to believe the entire state was once covered by these giants. Shame of it is, many of these trees are nearing the end of their lifecycle. Each year a few more fall down.
The highlight of this day was bombing five miles down hill on an old timber-era, narrow-gauge rail corridor. All loaded down and traveling on this sometimes-rough surface, the Powderkeg rolled with a confidence that encouraged more speed, despite the rain. This and many other downhills made me thankful for the large disc brake rotors. Even with those big rotors, we often smelled hot brakes on descents.
After a big day in the saddle and one lengthy, uphill, bushwhacking hike-a-bike, our last night camping was by far the most spectacular, right at the base of an underappreciated and positively gorgeous waterfall. We hustled to beat the rain into camp, which hammered down just moments after we finalized our tarp setup. Thanks to the day’s rain, it only took a dozen attempts to get a decent fire going. With nearly a month of rain prior to our trip, the falls were running ample and loudly, making for another good night’s sleep.
After a short trip back to the car on day four, we were happy to be easing back into civilization. It’s funny how being mostly remote for not even four full days provides a whole different perspective on your day-to-day existence.
In all, this trip was everything we had hoped it would be. We had a blast sharing a local adventure, but more importantly, touring on a tandem undoubtedly made us both more connected, conscientious, considerate partners.
Continue reading with our full field review of the Salsa Powderkeg.
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