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.
Subscribe today so you don’t miss any adventures or bike reviews.
From Issue #37
Testers: Justin Steiner and Emily Walley
To see action photos and learn more about this bike, check out the multi-day bikepacking adventure that begat this review by reading “Allegheny National Forest touring tandemonium” from the same issue.
Salsa first began prototyping tandems back in 2010 when former Salsa Engineer Tim Krueger and his wife Odia saw other couples racing the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival’s Short and Fat Race on tandems. Now, many prototype miles later, including a trip down the Tour Divide,the production Powderkeg is here.
While the Powderkeg is inspired by Salsa’s El Mariachi 29er mountain bike, the construction is much burlier. Salsa utilizes downright huge Cobra Kai tubes custom drawn for this project on the frame and fork to minimize flex. Despite the heavy-duty construction, the complete bike weighs just 42 pounds.
Three frame sizes are available; medium/small, large/small and large/medium. According to Salsa, those offerings will fit captains from five feet, eight inches to six feet, three inches. Stokers from five feet, five inches to six feet even. It’s worth noting we’re both one inch shorter than the minimum stated fit range but had no issues fitting on the bike. Emily ran the standard stoker stem and Justin swapped to a 60 mm stem.
Salsa bills the Powderkeg as a mountain, gravel and touring bike. Big brakes and aggressive knobby tires hold up the mountain bike end of the bargain so long as you’re willing. On the touring side, a plethora of rack, water bottle and three-pack mounts provide ample options for hauling stuff and mounting fenders. Salsa’s Alternator rear dropout system works incredibly well with the company’s Alternator Rack, but doesn’t play as nicely with other racks.
The rest of the Powderkeg’s spec is well thought out and reliable without being overly pricey. The Shimano SLX 3×10 drivetrain worked flawlessly and provided all the gearing range we needed. Avid BB7 cable-actuated brakes with 200 mm rotors provided ample stopping power and resisted fading throughout our testing.
It’s clear Salsa invested and lot of time and energy in this project and their hard work has paid off. The Powderkeg is a cohesive, rough and ready package. I’m so impressed with the ride quality and stiffness of this frame. Fully loaded for camping or on technical singletrack we never perceived a bit of fork or frame flex, which is incredible considering the length of the bike and the force two people can apply.
The Powderkeg’s handling is similarly impressive. Of course, riding a tandem requires some adjustment, this bike’s 70-degree headtube angle and long wheelbase blend low-speed maneuverability and high-speed stability very well, regardless of whether bombing singletrack or cruising dirt roads. At tandem-friendly-speeds off road, I never felt much need for a suspension fork, but a 100 mm tandem-rated suspension fork may be used. Unlike a single bike, each person is only really dealing with the impacts from one wheel. The other wheel is so far away the bump forces are much smaller.
The Powderkeg is one of just a few off-the-shelf mountain tandems available. Cannondale offers the Tandem 29er for $3,125 with some compelling component spec, but it doesn’t offer comparable touring versatility and has a strangely steep 72.5-degree headtube angle.
Aside from that, nearly every other tandem in this category hails from a smaller company and commands a premium. For instance, Co-Motion’s Java 29er starts at $5,595. Ventana offers a handful of tandems; the full suspension El Conquistador de Montañas 29er starts at $6,000 and the rigid, fat-wheel El Gran Jefe ranges from $3,200 to $6,500. All of these make the adventure-ready Powderkeg seem like a pretty good deal at $3,999.
Subscribe today so you don’t miss any of our bike and gear reviews.
From Issue #37
Bicycle touring has changed a lot over the past few years, and while riders once rejoiced for a smooth ribbon of asphalt, a rough and rocky road is now de rigueur. Right on the Trek website you see signs of this preference as the new 920 Disc is classified under the banner of “touring and adventure,” and it’s clearly been designed to peg the needle at the latter end of that dial.
I have to say, the matte green paint and knobby tires look pretty badass, like something you’d expect to see with CALL OF DUTY EDITION stenciled on the side. Besides its looks the main draw of the 920 is of course the wheels and tires, which are straight out of the Bontrager mountain bike catalog: duster elite tubeless ready 29-inch wheels with thru-axles front and rear and XR1 29×2.0 tires. There is ample clearance for a 29×2.2 or a set of fenders with the stock tires.
When not exploring the back roads of the Wild West, the 920 Disc would make an excellent commuter. The build powering those big wheels is a Sram 10-speed drivetrain with 42/28 chainrings and an 11-36 cassette, also borrowed from a mountain bike. Old-school bike tourists will appreciate the bar-end shifters, though I wish the modern SRAM versions could be switched to friction mode. The double chainrings are more than adequate for most riding, but don’t offer a huge range. This might be the first bike I’ve ridden where I was wishing for a little bit lower gear and a higher gear; usually it’s just one or the other.
Built from Trek’s 100 Series Alpha Aluminum, the frame’s tubing is aggressively shaped with a massive downtube and a distinctly kinked top tube. That kink makes room for a second bottle cage on the top of the down tube on frames size 56 and up, for a total of four on the main triangle. There are also bottle cage mounts on each fork leg that do double duty as the front rack mount. In fact, the 920 Disc includes both front and rear Bontrager aluminum racks. While the rear rack is a fairly conventional design, the front rack sits up a bit higher than a set of traditional low-riders, though with the panniers mounted on the second bar from the top the bike handles just fine with plenty of toe clearance.
Bringing it all to a halt is a pair of TRP’s Hylex hydraulic disc brakes, which stand out for their stopping power but are also distinctive for their ergonomics. The main body of the lever houses the master cylinder, and to make room they are quite long. So much so that if you swapped these onto another bike, you’d have to shorten the stem by 10 mm or so to compensate to achieve the same reach to the hoods. The compact bend of the handlebar keeps things pretty comfortable though. I also swapped out the stock stem for a shorter one to dial in a perfect fit.
I loaded the 920 up with panniers and hit the pavement for a 100-mile overnight road ride, and then ditched the racks for some forest road exploring. It’s perhaps a bit too heavy for all-out gravel racing, but I found it’s an excellent companion for all-day back road explorations and dirt road rambling. Despite the aluminum frame, the big tires are more than enough to soak up the road vibrations, and the Bontrager saddle and I got along just fine.
While the basic layout of the 920 Disc is fairly traditional, the details are anything but. Shift cables run internally and the frame is equipped with a port for the Trek DuoTrap S speed and cadence sensor system. The hydraulic brakes might scare off some traditionalists, but they are much appreciated when you’re careening down a mountain with 70 pounds of gear. Purists will also scoff at the notion of an aluminum frame and fork on a touring bike, but if you really think you need a frame that can somehow be pieced back together on the side of the road by a good samaritan with a blowtorch in Uzbekistan, so be it. But I doubt you do.
The other refrain I’ve seen echoing through the message boards is that Trek copied the Salsa Fargo, as if that were the first bike with 29-inch tires and drop bars. While the Salsa is at heart a mountain bike and can run a suspension fork, the 920 Disc isn’t meant for singletrack. Think of it more as a Subaru Outback than a Jeep Wrangler.
The stock tires are most at home on double-track or gravel, but they roll well enough that I left them on for road rides as well. Because they are tubeless ready the bead sits incredibly tight on the rim and fixing a flat requires very high air pressure, some strong thumbs and a bit of cursing to get the tires to seat properly. I recommend setting them up tubeless from the beginning to shed weight and eliminate pinch flats.
While the 920 is meant for more rough and tumble adventures rather than smooth pavement, I would still choose it over the classic Trek 520 model for traditional road touring. My mountain bike experience has made me a big fan of hydraulic disc brakes and thru-axles—modern features that have earned my trust. Whether you go slicks or knobbies, with racks or without, the 920 Disc is a versatile bike that is ready for your next adventure.
- Price: $2,090
- Weight: 24.8 pounds (without racks), 27.5 pounds (with racks)
- Sizes: 49, 52, 54, 56, 58 (tested) and 61 cm
- More: trekbikes.com
Adventure Cycling Association invites people of all ages and abilities to join National Bike Travel Weekend: the largest-ever weekend of bicycle travel across America and Canada—June 3-5, 2016—by registering an overnight bike trip or joining an existing one.
“Our goal is to inspire new and experienced bike travelers alike to enjoy an overnight bicycle trip with thousands of other people throughout North America on the same weekend,” says Jim Sayer, executive director of Adventure Cycling Association. “National Bike Travel Weekend is for big groups, small groups and solo bike enthusiasts. It can be one night or two nights, travelers can sleep outside or indoors, and the distance covered can be one to 100 miles — whatever works for you.”
Everyone who registers a National Bike Travel Weekend trip by May 16 will be entered into a drawing to win a commemorative Salsa Marrakesh touring bicycle. The official National Bike Travel Weekend hashtag is #biketravelweekend.
Participants can connect with over 150 National Bike Travel Weekend ambassadors with questions about going on a bike overnight. These ambassadors, located all over North America, are eager to share their local and regional knowledge of bike-friendly routes and overnight accommodations.
The inaugural National Bike Travel Weekend is being launched as part of Adventure Cycling’s 40th anniversary celebration in 2016. Adventure Cycling was founded as Bikecentennial and started as a 4,250-mile TransAmerica Trail bicycle ride with over 4,100 participants in the summer of 1976.
The hinterlands are the area just beyond your reach. Past the horizon. Around the next bend.
Those are the places Swift Industries hopes you’ll explore with its new line of bags and accessories. All of Swift Industries’ bags are made by hand in its Seattle workshop, and the new Hinterland Collection switches out the traditional Cordura construction in favor of the lighter and more water-resistant XPac material.
The centerpiece is the updated Ozette randonneuring bag that is available in three sizes, each of which mounts to a rando-style front rack. They feature a flared flap for water protection, a new closure system that offers better durability and versatility, and an internal organization system to keep your items close at hand. The small carries 10.5 liters, the medium 12.5 liters and the large 15.5 liters. It is only available in black XPac with orange accents. Prices range from $230 to $260.
Matching the Ozette is a pair of Hinterland Jr. Ranger Panniers, also made from XPac and perfect for carrying on front lowrider racks. They carry 20 liters per pair and use a traditional bungee hook attachment system for universal fit and durability. In addition to the external pockets, the dual-closure main body is lined with waterproof textile to ensure it is extremely weather resistant. They retail for $260 a pair.
Also new is the Roanoke Backpack Pannier, a modular backpack that attaches to your bike via traditional hook-and-strap pannier hardware. The two adjustable straps are made from seatbelt webbing for comfort and clip on and off to stow in the front pocket. Still made from Cordura for a classic look, it is available in either a Mini or Roll Top version, and the backpack conversion can be added to custom pannier bags, as well. The Roll Top measures 23 liters and the Mini Roll Top is 15 liters. The Roll Top sells for $205 and the Mini Roll Top for $180.
The Hinterland Collection, the Roanoke backpack panniers and all of Swift Industries’ classic bags are available now at Swift Industries’ redesigned website.
Read our review of the classic Jr. Ranger Panniers.
By Beth Puliti
Published in Issue #31
It’s a bit surreal to finally be turning the pedals on foreign soil after so much planning went into freeing myself from life at home. I’m not going to sugar coat things: Taking the initial steps to begin a long-term bike tour was intimidating and laborious. It would have been so much easier to hire a travel agent, purchase a vacation package, escape for two weeks and return home. Albeit, financially and emotionally drained.
But I don’t do easy. I can’t afford easy. And I don’t have the desire to “escape” life (despite what the travel industry and my nurse at the travel clinic say). I want to live it, fully and on my terms. It’s the belief that life doesn’t have to only consist of the familiar routine we frequently find ourselves living, unless we want it to. I believe we have the ability to figure out what it is we want in life and more or less create our own reality.
Therefore, it is while living my life—not running from it—that I began this long-term, two-wheeled journey. And it was when telling my friends and family of my plans that I heard time and again, “How can you afford it?” It’s a valid question. And it has a simple, two-part answer: priority and sacrifice. I’ll attempt to explain in more detail.
When something becomes a priority, we take steps to make it happen. Many people find a way to finance a brand new car, designer clothing or dining out, usually by saving and/or sacrificing in areas deemed less important. In the same way, when travel becomes a priority, my husband and I take similar steps. We live a simple life and are frugal with our humble savings. When we decided to place a higher value on travel, we didn’t have to change our lifestyle drastically.
That isn’t to say we don’t make sacrifices. The following is a list of things we did, or were already doing, that afforded us the freedom to travel. I understand everyone’s situation is different. This is simply what worked for us, and perhaps it might serve as a starting point of sorts for those looking for some guidance.
- We don’t have a smartphone payment. I don’t have one and my husband’s is paid for by his employer.
- We don’t have a cable bill, or a television, for that matter.
- We rarely go out to eat.
- We owned one older car that was paid off. Several days before we left the country, we sold it on Craigslist to add a bit of extra cash to our savings and eliminate our insurance payment.
- We put our house up for rent.
- We sold expensive items we wouldn’t have a need for on the road, such as rarely-used camera lenses and hardly-ridden bikes.
However, being able to afford long-term travel extends beyond the planning stages. We’re just as conscious of our spending when we’re pedaling, too. Here’s what we do on the road to afford frequent travel.
- We buy and cook most of our own food.
- We almost always use human-powered transportation.
- We sign up for credit cards that offer bonus miles and use the frequent flier miles we’ve accrued from business travel.
- We “wild camp” or seek out Warm Showers hosts. (Have you heard of Warm Showers? It’s a community of touring cyclists around the world who open up their homes to other touring cyclists. We’ve been hosted by some truly wonderful people on our current tour.)
This column is proof that we’re also working from the road, as time permits. Saying that we travel “inexpensively” is pretty subjective. What does that mean, exactly? It means [we were] pedaling through Italy on $20 a day [at the start of the trip]. That’s less than our living expenses in the United States. We thought we’d need to rush through Europe to maintain our savings but, much to our surprise and delight, we’re able to take our time.
Traveling this way isn’t for everyone. It requires a bit of sacrifice, effort and faith in humanity. But it will afford you authentic experiences, leave you with more money in your bank account and reward you a thousand times over.
Subscribe today so you don’t miss any of our special features!
In early August, Sarah and Tom Swallow closed up their bike shop, Swallow Bicycle Works in Loveland, Ohio, and set out for the adventure of a lifetime. They hoped to be one of the first to complete the Trans America Trail, a cross-country route from North Carolina to Oregon on mostly gravel, dirt and otherwise unpaved roads. They completed the trip this week after ten weeks on the road. I caught up with Sarah to ask about the experience.
For folks who aren’t familiar, can you tell us a little about the Trans America Trail route?
The Trans America Trail route is a primarily unpaved 5,000-mile transcontinental route designed by Sam Correro, intended for dual sport motorcycles. The surface of the route consists of mostly dirt and gravel roads, some sand, mud, high-clearance rocky roads, and some pavement.
Does the route go through a lot of resupply points? How does it compare to traditional bike touring?
Because the route is designed for dual sport motorcycles, it intersects with small towns that have gas stations. The longest distance between resupply points for us was 150 miles, but most of the time it was 50 to 70 miles. The greater distances between resupply points in less populated areas like Northern Oklahoma, Utah, and Nevada required a lot more planning for food, water, and camping, as we would ride those sections in two to three days, depending on their difficulty. I suppose that traditional bike touring includes more frequent opportunities to resupply and to be in populated areas, but I think it depends on where you are bike touring.
How difficult was it to navigate the route? Did you use GPS? Maps? A little of both?
We had an easy time following the route using our GPS devices. Although it is not marked, hundreds of motorcyclists ride this route every year, so the route is fairly established with accurate and up-to-date GPX files and maps provided by Sam or GPS Kevin. We used a tablet with downloaded maps, along with local state road maps we would pick up along the way for additional reference. The tablet was also useful for when we had to modify the route files.
What were some of your personal motivations for the trip?
There have been many. To name a few, it was to see what this route was all about, to see and learn from the world, and the simple pursuit of learning by doing. We wanted to experience it together, and to test our relationship with cycling, something we’ve made a life of with Swallow Bicycle Works.
What kind of gear did you use? What would you recommend gear-wise for someone attempting it themselves?
Choosing a bicycle for this route wasn’t easy since we had no point of reference for what the route would be like other than the small sections we had ridden and the information from motorcyclists on the internet. We used information about the Tour Divide to establish an idea of what the ride could be like with the expectation that there would be more pavement and less climbing. Before this trip we had only done a handful of 3-day and one, 7-day off-road bike tours, so we had relatively little experience relevant to a trip of this proportion.
We opted for what we had the most experience with for long-distance dirt road riding, which were steel-frame touring bicycles with Bruce Gordon 43mm on-/off-road tires and a centralized, lightweight minimal bike packing system. The overall system of equipment we selected was chosen to be an ideal balance of efficiency and comfort for the time that we had to ride the entire route, which we projected to be 500 miles per week for 10 weeks. Our estimates were not too far off, although there was a lot less pavement, a lot more large rocky sections, sand, mud, every kind of gravel there is, and some extremely steep grades.
After riding the route, we realized that our bikes were extremely capable, although biased to groomed road-like conditions, rather than rough rocky trails where we would have been more comfortable on a mountain bike. Our recommendation is to ride what is most comfortable to you on as many surfaces as you can imagine, and don’t ride anything less than a 43mm tire. Also, avoid an overly heavy setup in the case of extreme conditions requiring potential hike-a-bikes (i.e. flooding, mud, sand, snow, rock-slides, and other unknowns that affect a huge route subject to a variety of weather conditions). For a detailed list of what we packed, check out the Swallow Bicycle Works website.
Can you share your favorite high point or maybe not-so-favorite low point for the trip?
The low points made the high points so much higher. One particular low point was riding 40 miles on and off through deep sand in the San Raphael Swell in the high desert of Utah, followed by an unexpectedly steep and technical 20-mile climb the following day. We had hit our limit of difficulty after only 35 miles and decided to call it a day, at which point the perfect camp spot appeared, located along a rushing creek, equipped with a fire ring, plenty of flat spots to lay the tent, and golden aspen trees and cedars all around. That night we drank as much water as we wanted, ate to our hearts’ content, and star gazed into the late hours of the night, until some clouds moved away and revealed the bright orange super moon lunar eclipse, an unexpected surprise.
Read Sarah and Tom’s dispatches from the road on the SBWxTAT blog.
By Sean Jansen
If you look beyond the violent history of Colombia you will see a country that not only has moved on considerably from its past when Pablo Escobar was running things, but also a country that has something for everyone. It has the tropical climes of the Amazon, the Caribbean and the Pacific coasts. It stretches from massive cities to the Andes Mountains. If you trek deep into the misty hills you’ll find an area, nestled just south of the city of Medellin, that is famous for the country’s other top export. It is known as the Zona Cafetera, and that’s where the coffee is grown.
I came to Colombia years ago for the first time via the sailboat crossing from Panama and it was on this boat where I tried Colombian coffee for the first time. I have had Panamanian, Indonesian, Bolivian and Brazilian coffee too, but it is really the Colombian coffee that sweeps all of them off of their feet. It is rich and thick with flavor, but also smooth enough that you need not add cream or sugar to enjoy it.
The region where I ventured on my most recent visit is near a town called Salento, close to the Valle de Cocora, a valley that looks straight out of Jurassic Park. Salento is a small town and it isn’t really known to tourists as the coffee hot spot, but it has fantastic coffee and a really cool way of getting to the plantations and surrounding areas.
Salento is only about 15 miles from a much larger city, but because the Andes are so treacherous it takes 45 minutes to get there. The only way to get to the plantations from Salento is on dirt roads, some of which are impossible to drive on. Therefore you can either walk, ride a horse, or get there the way we chose: by grabbing a couple mountain bikes and heading out to the plantations on two wheels.
We rolled up and down the terrain of the Andes, all the while peering at vegetation that looked like something prehistoric. While trying to breathe the thin air more than a mile above sea level, it was lost to us what our ultimate goal of the trip was. We were completely taken away by the sheer bizarreness and beauty of a place that God clearly intended on being lost and never found. Going up and down on a bumpy dirt road puts into perspective how many little nooks and crannies there are still undiscovered and most likely untouched on this planet. We were seriously contemplating when a dinosaur would come out of the vegetation and cross the road. To think that the country’s famous coffee comes from this zone was something that dumbfounded us.
After about 45 minutes of jaw dropping, life changing beauty, we arrived at the plantation and were immediately welcomed into the estate and given an introduction to the coffee. We learned about its journey from the plant in the soil to the black liquid in a cup that people all over the world rely on every day.
Coffee is grown between the altitudes of 1,800 and 6,000 feet on mountainsides and often interspersed with plantain and banana trees as the combination of plants help each other grow. Colombia is special because unlike some other coffee growing regions of the world, Colombia sits almost on the equator and has two growing seasons instead of just one.
The coffee that we drink and the beans that we buy at the store are black because they are cooked and are ready to be ground and brewed to your desire, but they don’t look like that when they are first picked from the plant.
The guide explained to us how to use the colors of the leaves to see if the beans are ready or not and how to pick them. A coffee picker has to pick around 40 to 100 beans to make a single cup of coffee, which, if I were the picker, would take me about an hour.
We all picked a coffee beans from the plants and tried our best to peel back the skin to get to the light brown inner bean. It is then ready to put into the caldron for cooking. Then the beans are dried in the sun, which could take up to a couple days. Finally once dried, they are placed into what is known as a popper.
A popper is a device that not only heats up to an incredible temperature, but also stirs the beans every two to three seconds while they are roasting. In the popper they are cooked and stirred until the dark brownish black color comes about. Once achieved, they are taken out and cooled for approximately 12 hours. Then finally, after the hours it took to pick the beans, peel the skin, dry the beans, cook them and grind them, you are ready to have your first cup of coffee.
And that we did, and that we were happily coaxed with the energy and stained teeth to continue cruising around the Andes mountains and the Zona Cafetera. Two of my favorite things in the world are coffee and cycling, and to have both of them together with such a spectacular setting, I’m not sure my afternoon could have been any better.
An early version of this story made several references to “Columbia.” Columbia is the capital of South Carolina. The area was first visited by Hernando de Soto in 1540 and much of the city was destroyed during the Civil War. Today it is the home of the University of South Carolina and balances bustling redevelopment while maintaining its historic architecture. No coffee is grown there.Tweet Print