Feature: Penniless in Peru

Interview: Adam Newman 
Photos: Hugo Asef

It’s safe to say Laura Bingham isn’t afraid to try something new. In 2014, as a young adventurer from the U.K. with no knowledge of sailing, she talked her way onto a 38 foot trimaran and sailed across the Atlantic with two blokes and a cat named Cuba. Earlier this year she gathered up some supplies and hopped aboard a bike to embark on another long journey with a curious twist.

In 166 days she cycled from the Pacific coast of South America in Ecuador southeast to Buenos Aires on the Atlantic coast, 4,300 miles in all with a rotating cast of friends and family aboard a second bike. She did it without bringing any money, and solely relying on her wits and the kindness of strangers. The trip wasn’t just a vacation though. In all she raised about $1,500 for Operation South America, a charity in Paraguay that, among other projects, houses up to 20 young girls who have been victims of extreme poverty and abuse.

Here she tells the story of her adventure in her own words from our interview:


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So many people cycle South America [I thought] how do I make it different? And then I came up with the idea to do it without any money. Once I told people I was doing it without money I couldn’t go back on it. I didn’t spend any money from Ecuador to Lima in Peru. I was collecting bits of money which we then had to use to fix the bike. But after Lima I didn’t touch money once, until I arrived in Buenos Aires.

I tend to not do anything and then suddenly go into it. I just jump into the deep end and then put myself in a position where I can’t turn back. I didn’t really do that much cycling beforehand because I was a bit scared that it would frighten me into not doing this trip… Why waste time learning how to do something when you can put yourself into a position where it’s sink or swim? And that’s what I’ve learned, that if you put yourself in that position, where you sink or swim, people have incredible swimming abilities. If you put yourself in a position where you can’t turn back, you’re going to succeed, whether you like it or not.

[The hardest part] was just not having the ability to buy what you wanted when you wanted it. And generally peo- ple would still give you things, which is so sweet and so lovely but you still don’t get that choice of which one you wanted. And I found it quite upsetting when I got home and I got that choice again. I cried a lot in supermarkets, and I kept picking things up and crying and I struggled a bit with shops when I came home because I found it very confusing to be able to pick things up and just have them.

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At the start I took way too much weight. I took four panniers and a trailer which was the biggest mistake of my life. I did research about which one to take, and whether I was going to take both, and no one really addressed how shit it is when you take all of it. Had I had the right fuel for a lot of the [ride] I think it would have taken me a lot less time. There were some days when you’d be pushing a bike up a hill for seven days and you’ve had a stale roll in the morning, a stale roll for lunch, and in the afternoon it just becomes inconceivable to start pushing any more. The energy just isn’t there to use.

I like the idea of using a new mode of transport each time and seeing a new community. Because everything I do has a whole community surrounding it, and I absolutely adore that… It’s absolutely the most beautiful thing to be able to enter these different communities and get a taste for what that life is about… And I’m just a bit greedy because I want to be a part of all of them.In South America people throw loads of food out of the car window and occasionally there’s biscuits and food in there. And I think one of the most important things about cycling around South America is that you keep a very keen eye on the side of the roads because I found so much food. I found a box with 24 cans of tuna in it. That was basically my entire protein source for the trip.

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In Ecuador I was just starving all the time because I didn’t have any food, so I lost a lot of weight, but then I got to Peru and people started feeding me a lot more and being kind and giving me food. I was just shoving anything and everything in my face, I would not stop eat- ing. As I got to Paraguay and Argentina people were really, really kind and almost gave me too much food. And because I had an abundance of food around me again I realized I could say no to food and I would be OK because I would probably find food later.

People sort of rotated in and out of the expedition, so the second [bike] got hit by a minivan first, got snapped in two places and bent to the point that we had to get a crowbar to straighten it up again. We were hitting it with a hammer trying to straighten it up, which was crazy. And then we welded it back together when we got to Lima. It also got hit in Bolivia. My fiancé got sideswiped by a truck, but it still managed to finish. After being snapped and bent and welded back together it still cycled across the Andes two more times.


You can learn more about Laura’s travels at laurabingham.org and Operation South America at operationsouthamerica.org.

 

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Made: A look inside Swift Industries

Mary and Rosie reinforce the edges of bag windows and panels.

Mary and Rosie reinforce the edges of bag windows and panels.

Words: Adam Newman
Photos: Nathan Kane

Ed note: This was originally published in Issue #40. The Swift workshop has moved since these photos were taken, but the spirit and product remain the same. We still thought you might like a peek inside a handmade industry—there are quite a few bicycle products being made in the USA to get excited about!

Seattle has long been home to one of the most robust randonneuring communities in the United States. With their legendary blue jerseys and shining silver fenders, most of the riders embrace the classic French style of the sport. But when Swift Industries burst onto the bag-making scene a few years ago, things began to change.

Swift’s products echoed the classic lines of Carradice or Berthoud bags, but the eye-popping color palate was appetizing to young riders looking to stand out from the crowd. The lineup includes massive saddle bags and porteur bags, as well as traditional panniers and other small accessories.

Swift Industries Adventure Headquarters

Swift Industries Adventure Headquarters

All Swift Industries products are designed, cut, sewn, assembled and shipped from this small workshop in Seattle. While the bags were once made from waxed canvas, and more recently Cordura, its new line, dubbed Hinterland, is made from X-pac sailcloth for less weight, better water resistance and a more contemporary look.

While some items are kept in stock for immediate delivery, most are made-to-order with each panel’s color selected by the customer. Fueled by a sense of adventure (and plenty of strong coffee), cofounders Martina Brimmer and Jason Goodman walk the walk and ride the ride. They’ve toured across the country and around the world, and their products encapsulate more than a decade of refinements from a life on two wheels.

Swifties

If you’re in Seattle, drop by Swift at 562 1st Avenue South #201 (current address). Look for our review of a new Swift bag designed for Wald baskets to appear in an upcoming issue of Bicycle Times.

Swift production floor.

Swift production floor.

A true hand on the cutting table.

A true hand on the cutting table.

A trademark tag meets its bag.

A trademark tag meets its bag.

Rosie about to turn these panels into a made-to-order Paloma handlebar bag.

Rosie about to turn these panels into a made-to-order Paloma handlebar bag.

Quick work made with an electric cutter.

Quick work made with an electric cutter.

Ricky uses a template to prepare fabric for cutting.

Ricky uses a template to prepare fabric for cutting.

Queue of thread that binds it all together.

Queue of thread that binds it all together.

Loki, shop dog and faithful companion dreams of future trail and food to come.

Loki, shop dog and faithful companion dreams of future trail and food to come.

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Readers Write: ‘Instrument of Freedom’

Words: Joanna Urban

A bike is an instrument of freedom. On it you can feel the breeze in your hair and against your skin as you pedal faster and faster, riding into the wind or along with it.

Nothing is weighing you down or holding you back. Wearing shorts that cling to the curves of your muscles, hair pulled back and legs shaved, you blend almost seamlessly into the air swirling around you. The wind is not your enemy—you are simply swimming in it.

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On your bike, you might be riding away from something or toward it. Or you can traverse the same path over and over again, around in circles, until eventually your customary, frequented route starts to make a lot of sense. You learn it by heart, and commit it to memory. Nothing could seem more familiar than this treasured path. You remember exactly where the big hills occur on certain stretches and even your muscles recall the way they burn in your thighs when you stand up and pedal hard against gravity. Part of the path is sunny and too hot but you learn to enjoy it. You internalize this as a welcome feeling before riding into the shade where only meager patches of sunlight peak through the canopy of trees.

On the bike path, you ride past a tree with a tire swing tied to it in someone’s yard. Oddly, you never see a kid playing on it, but it is comforting to think that children have swung on it before and probably will again someday. You hope that kids have played there, or will play on it in the future, because if not, then what a waste of a beautiful swing tied to a big strong tree branch.

Each time you ride this route, you cruise past the same wrought iron tables outside of the neighborhood coffee shop. You eavesdrop on the conversations occurring at these tables, and you feel connected to these people in a way. Yet somehow, everything they say seems strangely remote and impersonal: “He dumped me for someone else via a text message; I missed out on the big promotion; we got a new puppy and he’s afraid of the vacuum cleaner; we’re going on vacation to Hawaii; now I just have to loose five pounds.”

You once cared about these things, too, when they were happening to you but on your bicycle the people are out of sight, their words out of earshot in a few seconds. There are different people at the tables every day with novel rumors, anecdotes and breaking news bits to share. Each piece of exciting or devastating news you hear lasts only transiently, then it fades into the breeze and is forever behind you as you continue on your route, forgetting.

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Nothing is personal when you’re on your bike. None of the words you hear from the people outside the coffee shop have any bearing on you, nor does getting a flat tire, or falling down after swerving to avoid hitting a squirrel. These things inevitably happen on the trail. You have come to expect all of it.

The most important part is coming back home and knowing that your route will be there for you again the next day. It won’t give you the answers, but the trail and the air around you is a bank that carries for you the words that comprise your thoughts and questions and uncertainties. You won’t be burdened with any of them as long as you are on the bike riding somewhere, knowing that everything is temporary and the only certainty is moving forward.

These thoughts and words and feelings float around you in the breeze and you’re protected from them; you escape from them. Your thoughts don’t always define you, but often they are just reflections of what people tell you, what you’ve heard is supposed to happen and what you fear may not pan out.

When it’s just you and the bike and the ground beneath you and the wind surrounding you, there is nothing to reflect against; you are free to simply be. The thoughts are given back to you at the end of the ride, of course, but you feel different now. You realize that they never could harm you. As long as you have an outlet for expression, an instrument of freedom, your thoughts, questions, and anxieties are just your fuel.


How do you roll?

Share your stories by sending them to [email protected] with the subject line “How I Roll.”

 

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Bike-thru window

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Words: Uma Kleppinger
Photo: Adam Newman
Originally published in Issue #41

Ever try to ride your bike through a drive-up customer service window? If you have, odds are you’ve probably been denied service.

We contacted several banks, drugstores and fast-food restaurants to find out what their stance is on serving cyclists. Most cited a corporate policy that didn’t permit it for liability reasons. Some admitted motorists were often speeding around blind corners and they were concerned about cyclists’ visibility and safety. Others refused service fearing cyclists were more likely to try to rob the staff at the window, particularly where cycling is considered synonymous with poverty. In areas where bike commuting isn’t a way of life, our inquiries were met with incredulity.

But not all drive-ups are anti-bike. Businesses in Washington and Oregon were most receptive to serving urban cyclists, suggesting the no-bikes stance is dependent on the visibility and acceptance of bike commuting as a way of life. Bottom line? You won’t know until you try.

One notable exception to the rule is the Pacific Northwest restaurant chain Burgerville, renowned for sourcing its food from local and sustainable farmers. After being denied service at a drive-through a few years ago, one cyclist took to social media to share her experience and the restaurant paid attention. It quickly changed its corporate policy to officially welcome bikes at all its drive-up windows, further demonstrating its commitment to sustainability.

As far as we know, Burgerville has never been robbed by a masked biker, nor has a cyclist been plowed over by road raging hypoglycemic motorists, but it’s pretty safe to say many customers have enjoyed a guilt-free milkshake and sweet potato fries as they pedaled on down the road.

 

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The ultimate ride almost goes ultimately wrong

Ride to the Ride BT41-1

Words and photos: Chris Reichel
Originally published in Issue #41

I had decided to do something I had dreamed about since I was a kid: to ride across the United States. I already had a habit of turning simple ride ideas into what I like to call “great bad ideas” and this particular bad idea has been a long time in the making. I now have a full-fledged mountain bike addiction, so why not tow a trailer with a mountain bike on it, stopping at great trails along the way? I called it the Ultimate Ride to the Ride.

I never once thought eastern Colorado and Kansas would be easy. I have heard enough stories from other riders to respect the difficulty of the prairie. But I had no idea just how much it would try to destroy me.

Most of my suffering was my fault. I came into this ride completely underprepared and out of shape. I could only laugh at the fact that while I was spending so much time arranging my life to exit society and live on my bicycle, that I had no time to actually ride. As I rode away from Longmont, Colorado, to start the trip, I hit the eastern Colorado prairie like it was training camp. There is no better way to get into riding shape than to ride all day, every day.

Day three of any tour is the hardest. It is the physical and mental barrier that will bring down even the strongest of riders. By this point soreness has caught up with you and the realization that you have a long way to go finally sets in. I have lived through it dozens of times before and this time was no different. I punched through and by day six I was in Kansas. My mileage was steadily increasing and by day 10 I was in full touring mode. Training camp over. Time to really ride.

Hitting my stride at that point, I was having a blast. I rolled into the town of Hill City with 70 miles behind me and feeling great. This was already my biggest day of the trip and I didn’t see any reason to stop now. I was stuffing my face with ice cream in a gas station parking lot when a man stopped to talk to me. He introduced himself as Jeramy and said he was a cyclist too. I told him my planned route for the rest of the evening but he recommended a better way, a way that had less traffic and no gravel roads. I thanked him and decided to take his advice.

Sure enough, he was right. It was a beautiful ride through the countryside at sunset. I had just pulled over to switch on my lights when a truck slowly pulled up along side me. It was Jeramy and a buddy. They thought I could use a beer so they drove out to find me. We hung out in a cornfield talking bikes and beer until nearly midnight.

My riding was obviously done for the day and I decided to camp right where we were standing. It was a 5-star day of bike touring. I woke up suddenly at 4 a.m. to my phone ringing. I was a little foggy listening to the voicemail, but it was Jeramy and he sounded serious. “Man, there is a really bad storm coming your way. It’s on my house right now or else I’d come get ya. Please find shelter. It’s REALLY bad!”

It was a little breezy around me, and I could hear some thunder in the distance, but nothing seemed very serious. I started to pull up the weather radar on my phone when, all of the sudden, I lost service. Just like that, the wind picked up and the thunder was right on top of me. There were some culverts near by, but how bad could it be? It was a beautiful night when I went to sleep.

I made the decision to stay in the tent with all of my belongings. I put my back to the wind and braced the side of my tent. I spread my legs as wide as I could to secure the corners of the tent and I held the crossbar in the tent’s ceiling. The wind was getting ferocious and with a single gust all of the stakes ripped from the ground. The rainfly started whipping me in the back so hard that I felt the zipper break the skin.

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Then the rain came like a wave and I was instantly sitting in two inches of water. When the lightning flashed I could see the water rushing into all of my dry bags that I had poorly sealed before falling asleep. There was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t let go of the tent. This was starting to get serious. The wind speed continued to increase and I was now getting hit with debris. A few gusts were so strong that they caught the tent just right and started to lift me off the ground.

Then I heard a sound that I will never forget. Imagine standing next to a freight train. Now turn that sound up to 11 and mix in the demons of hell. It sounded like pure evil. It was so loud that at one point I let out a scream just see if I could hear it, and I couldn’t.

At that moment the tent poles finally broke and I instinctively rolled myself up like a burrito in the rain fly. Funny thing is that I remember being so calm, that I actually wondered why I was so calm. All I could think to myself was “Is this really a tornado in Kansas? How cliché.”

The noise passed as fast as it came and by the time the rain stopped it was dawn. I assessed the damage and it wasn’t pretty. My tent was flattened, all of my possessions were soaked and my cameras were under water. My bike rig had been moved about 15 feet downwind and my helmet was nowhere to be seen.

I busied myself with spreading my gear out to dry. Jeramy drove out to see if I was okay and handed me a beer to calm my nerves. I guess I looked a little shaken up. He informed me that the news reported a tornado touched down “just over there” and pointed at a field close to where we were standing. That was heavy news to hear. I just rode out a tornado. In my tent.

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Suddenly I wasn’t so upset about my ruined camera gear. I was just happy to be breathing. At that moment I was done. Get me out of here and take me home now. If there was a big red button that I could press to end the trip I would have pressed it. Transport me back to the comfort of my home trails and my neighborhood pub. Back to my comfortable little house and my mediocre job.

But I didn’t set out on this trip to be comfortable. I did it to ride bikes and have unique experiences. I have to chalk up that crazy night to another experience and move on down the road. Plus, after 400 miles, I am almost to the singletrack. I can’t quit now, I have worked so hard to get this far. So I sucked it up and pedaled on down the road. Like a moth to a flame, I went to the trails.


Read More! Check out the seven-part series about this trip that Reichel wrote for our sister magazine, Dirt Rag.

 

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Feature: ALONE

BT41 Alone-6

Photo: Nicholas Carman

Words: Amanda DelCore
Originally published in Issue #41

I was itching to ride alone. No offense to any of my trail pals that had accompanied me through Canada, Montana, and Wyoming on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, but I had a personal score to settle with Colorado.

In 2009 I had lived as a bat-shit-crazy Coloradan for a year—summitting 14,000-foot mountains at dawn, skiing powder for the first time and learning how to backpack. My inner explorer and adventurer woke up in those mountains.

I was lured away for graduate school and work but was never able to forget the thrill of the jagged peaks and the wide valleys. To compensate I toiled in the semi-secret woodsy trails hidden within the urban tangle of Philadelphia.

Then fast forward to the summer of 2015. I had already ridden about 1,700 miles along the Great Divide route with friends but I was about to finish the trail alone. I had returned to the Colorado Rockies and had them all to myself. Known for their fickle temperament, the mountains wasted little time putting me in my place. Almost immediately after leaving Steamboat Springs the cloud ceiling dropped and I encountered pockets of light rain. Intermittent showers turned to steady rain and thunder as I rode further into the mountains.

As my eyes darted from the sky to the dirt, I could feel myself cowering over my handlebars. It was either “ride” or “hide” from the storm, and I chose “ride.” The gnarled bows of scrubby juniper told me that these trees were not to be confused with shelter. I descended the switchbacks as quickly as I could on my top-heavy rig and swore under my breath. Lightning cracked and thunder boomed from one valley to another.

The confusing part was that I couldn’t see the storm. I felt like a blind horse running out of a burning barn. As I maneuvered down the mountain, the unincorporated community of Radium came into view. Relief and a sense of urgency hit me at the same time. I gritted my teeth and pedaled faster. A wide river snaked through the small, flat valley. Even better, I saw dots that resembled park shelters.

I managed to roll into the park just as the rain started falling in sheets. I splashed up to the sturdy outdoor latrine and perched atop the only logical hangout: a trash can tucked underneath the overhang. I didn’t know I could feel so much gratitude for such a simple thing. Cross-legged, I passed time doing the one thing that every long-distance bikepacker does when he or she gets off the bike: I put food in my mouth.

I had wanted to ride farther that day but the park rangers said the roads were so wet that I wouldn’t make much progress. I knew that the struggle for a few miles today would be quick work tomorrow, so I decided to sleep in the valley. The clouds broke, the sun came out, and I witnessed a full rainbow. As the sun went down I pitched my tent on a too-neat-for-nature gravel pad.

As I sipped some pasta-water tea, I reflected that it wasn’t such a bad end to a mostly annoying day of bike riding. This could be any day for a bikepacker. It certainly could be worse. There was the time I didn’t bring enough water to the high desert in New Mexico and was luckily replenished by bow-season hunters. Or the time I climbed a mountain pass only to lock eyes with a bull moose at the top. Or the day that I rode 120 miles from Cuba to Grants, New Mexico—60 percent of the way into brutal headwinds, 95 percent completely and utterly alone with the landscape and 100 percent responsible for my nutrition and hydration.

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Photo of and by the author: Amanda DelCore

So how do people do it? How do they overcome the unique challenges of being alone, on a bike, especially in remote areas? The very nature of riding solo means that the physical and mental struggles are difficult to communicate to anyone who wasn’t there.

I had the chance to interview a handful of solo bike travelers who range from anxious to intrepid, but are nonetheless out there, alone. What resulted was a submersion into the human psyche, a place where the ever-determined ego confronts the stalking shadow of fear over and over and over again.

Being your only company, you witness the dark side of your mind. You learn to laugh at your own jokes. Personal growth isn’t just about VO2 max anymore. Music, podcasts and audiobooks can only mask solitude for a few hours. After that, you learn how to be alone.

Claire Porter, who solo toured the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Canada to Colorado as a Blackburn Ranger, recollects that “spending hours in the saddle alone, day after day, definitely put me deep in my head, and that didn’t end up being entirely good. But it forced me to ask the hard questions that had been looming before the trip like ‘What do I want to do with my life?’ and ‘How much eating is appropriate?’ All of which occupied my mind for hours on end.”

Lael Wilcox, a Tour Divide record setter, spun her way to a more meditative approach. “I’ll find myself thinking about things that have happened in the past, or I’ll think about future plans, but eventually I’ll get to a place where my mind is pretty quiet. After awhile, it’s going back into town that gets hard.”

Berly Brown, an artist inspired by her cycling adventures, thinks back to her first tour. “I often got lost in listening to my breathing as I felt my legs move—a mindfulness practice before I knew what that was. I just tried to stay engaged by noticing how my body felt or by watching the scenery. In the Pacific Northwest that was easy. I mostly felt incredible gratitude that I was doing it!”

Rebecca Rusch, a professional adventure racer and mountain biker, dishes an elegant but practical solution to staying mentally engaged during long solo adventures. “Choose a route that’s really inspiring. There are many classic routes I haven’t ridden simply because they just don’t excite me. Picking a place you’ve always wanted to go is an important first step.”

Photo: Ian Hylands

Photo: Ian Hylands

As a solo traveler, you are your own navigator. You pay attention. Not only do you plan, but you also plan for failure. Good planning sets you free to enjoy the ride once you’re rolling. One thing upon which all the veteran bikepackers agree is that good planning is crucial to a positive experience. And after you’ve controlled all you can control, you have to trust the universe.

Kim Murrell, who rode thousands of miles solo across Florida in the past year, admits that she’s probably a little fringe when it comes to planning her trips. She purposely doesn’t over-research to keep the adventure of the unknown intact. But even she admits, “you always have a plan B.” Rusch will tell you the same thing. “I like to always have a what-if-the-shit-hits-the-fan plan. Not that I plan on failure, but it’s reassuring to have an escape route. Know your escape routes.”

Good planning doesn’t just mean having maps and a GPS. It also means researching your gear, learning how to use it, and knowing how to exist wherever you are. Herein lies one of the greatest freedoms in bikepacking. If you don’t make it to your planned site for the night, all is not lost. In fact, all is very typical. As long as your have enough water and food, an impromptu campsite is a likely option.

I’ve never had a bikepacking trip that’s gone according to plan. Having a system to adapt to constantly changing plans is essential. In a way, it’s kind of like life.

Jocelyn Gaudi, founder of the Komorebi bikepacking team, uses routines as a means for on-the-trail organization and sanity. “It’s important to go through routines that make you feel in control. Knowing that when you arrive and you’re so desperately tired, you have a checklist and you just have to do it. It’s also a practical way to make sure you don’t leave things behind.”

Common sense and science both tell us that we feel safer in numbers. Studies have shown that people who are alone perceive threats as closer than when they are in a group. Anyone who has spent time in the backcountry knows this feeling: your perception of danger is somehow more acute. While some self-awareness is probably beneficial, fear of danger can be debilitating and, quite frankly, a huge downer on a solo trip.

Photo: William Stump

Photo: William Stump

“My biggest fear on the trail isn’t sleeping in a bivy in the wilderness or riding by the swamps,” said Murrell. “It’s when you’re on that old dirt road, in the middle of nowhere, and all of a sudden you see a car or truck. That’s the only fear I really have. That’s when I stop and process the situation. Do I stop? Do I keep going?”

“Usually if I am riding alone I worry about being run off the road or attacked or abducted,” said Brown. “I try to push past those thoughts by thinking of something else or coming up with plans or methods of how I might escape!”

Gaudi recounts the time she got stopped by a logging truck on the Cascade Skyline route in Oregon. “The driver wanted to let me know that, today, he saw bears and cougars, and he wanted to know if I had a gun with me.” She remembers that she started thinking very quickly. “Bears and cougars? Plural? I don’t know this person at all, I’m in the middle of nowhere, he has a truck, I have no escape route. How much information do I give him? But I think he might be giving me valuable information. So, I lied to him and told him that I had a gun. It was just my gut reaction. He seemed satisfied by this, and took off down the hill. So I turned on music really loudly and tried to make a joke about what type of music wild animals would be most turned off by.”

Whether or not Beyoncé repels bears remains to be confirmed, but there were no sightings that day.

On the contrary, both Wilcox and Rusch sounded miffed when I asked them about safety outside of sport-related injury. “Huh?” was their general reaction. (I personally think they’re going too fast to get stopped by anyone or anything, amirite?)

Wilcox has traveled by bike for about eight years and has ridden on the order of 100,000 miles around the world. Across time and space, she’s seen the face of humanity, and by her judgment, the stranger’s face is not very different from our own. “Put yourself in their shoes for a moment.You see a dirty, tired cyclist coming into town, what’s going through their head? Maybe they’re just as skeptical of you as you are of them.”

In 2015, Wilcox rode from her home in Alaska more than 2,000 miles to the starting line of the Tour Divide race. She then raced the 2,500 miles of the Tour Divide in 17 days and set a new women’s record. Unsatisfied with her performance, she retraced her tire tracks along the route a few months later and finished in less than 16 days. Here is a person who has taken fear out of the equation. Any kind of human limits seem to also be missing.

Photo: William Stump

Photo: William Stump

You might be thinking, “Why even bother doing a solo trip when going with others is just so much easier?” Believe it or not, bikepacking alone has its rewards. “I make it a point to do my trips as solo as possible,” Murrell said. “Don’t get me wrong, I love to ride with people, but I also enjoy just knowing I’m completely solo out there. When I go on a trip, I am only focused on the route and I really unplug. I can’t get that anywhere else.”

For Rusch, a long, solitary bikepacking trip was exactly what she needed after hosting the Rebecca’s Private Idaho race, a “gravel-strewn, grit-filled, pedal-cranking love letter” from Rusch and her Idaho home to the rest of the world. “After hosting a 500-plus person event with my name in the title I was just mentally and physically exhausted,” she said. “The Smoke ’n’ Fire 400 was actually the longest unsupported bikepacking trip I’ve done. I had so much fun on that ride. I was just on this amazing adventure, exploring places in my home state, seeing the animals at night, watching the sunrise. It was a beautiful experience.” She reflected that because her mental game was so positive, she ended up placing really well despite not training intentionally for the event.

Although Gaudi is typically preparing for group excursions with the Komorebi team, she took a time out to test herself on the Cascade Skyline route in Oregon over a long weekend. “I chose a challenging route for a reason. I’m typically the trip leader, but this time, for better or worse, I only had myself to think about … I wanted to see how far I could get, and see if I could leverage all the bikepacking skills I had gained in the summer. It turned out to be a much tougher ride than I anticipated. I was bushwhacking five miles into the route.”

Personally, I live for the sensory experience of bikepacking solo. My sense of smell is keener, my eyes are sharper, and I’m always aware of my environment. In some ways, it’s kind of like being an animal, and I love that. However, the emotional side of things also seem more intense. Fear strikes harder, persistence grows faster, happiness is easy, and subtle victories are satisfying.

Bikepacking the GDMBR alone through Colorado and New Mexico helped me realize that the sensory experiences and personal developments are worth every moment of fear. I’ll never forget my first day in New Mexico. It was littered with steep climbs, unfair terrain and pop-up squalls. But I daresay it was all worth it. That day, there was a moment where I could see sunshine on one end of the landscape and a storm on the other. That day, I experienced an overwhelming sense of satisfaction from just sitting on the ground to eat a snack. And at the end of the day, I was immensely thankful to fall asleep reading a book in my tent.

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Photo of and by the author: Amanda DelCore

We all know that fear has many faces. The faster you characterize it the faster you can move past it to actually enjoy long, leisurely tours or race-pace adventures. This is a highly personal ordeal, and only you will be able recognize the face of your fear. Rusch sums it up perfectly: “Often times you can identify what you’re actually afraid of, and then get rational about it.”

Wilcox offered an expansive perspective. “In every country I visit, people ask me about my safety. People will warn me about neighboring countries and say, ‘You don’t want to cross that border, it’s bad over there.’ But I do cross that border, and the people there are just as hospitable, just as welcoming. And of course, the people in that country say the same thing. ‘Oh, don’t cross that border, it’s bad over there.’ But I’m going to cross that border too. Fear is so limiting.”

 

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Globetrotting: Ride to Relief

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Words and photos: Beth Puliti
Originally published in Issue #41

It was Saturday, and Bishnu Tiwari was visiting his hometown 50 kilometers northwest of Kathmandu, Nepal, to attend his cousin’s wedding. Shortly before noon, as he and his brothers were preparing for the ceremony at their uncle’s home, the ground started vibrating. Subtle quivering gave way to violent shaking that nearly knocked Bishnu off his feet.

“It was like a swing, but terrific,” he recalled. “Houses in the village moved like branches of trees, and some of them even disintegrated before our eyes.”

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Helpless against the powerful forces of nature, people cried out in despair as they watched their homes topple to the ground. In the distance, Bishnu saw the hills surrounding his village crumble into dust.  The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the Himalayas that day killed 8,000 people as the Indian tectonic plate was forced underneath the Eurasian plate. It leveled cities and caused a massive avalanche on Mt. Everest.

When the ground finally settled, Bishnu’s mind panicked: One kilometer away, his young son and daughter were in his family’s home which, a look in that direction confirmed, had been reduced to rubble.

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“It was my life’s saddest moment,” Bishnu said. “My brothers and I ran as fast as we could down toward our completely destroyed house thinking it might too late to rescue our family members.”

Fortunately, their family survived, but they weren’t the only people to suffer such devastation. When the brothers traveled house to house to check in on their neighbors, they found out every home in their village had collapsed. “But everyone was safe,” Bishnu told me, “because of the marriage party.”

In a show of solidarity common in his village, everyone had been out helping to prepare for the wedding ceremony at the time of the natural disaster.


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Nepal’s national mountain biking team was training for an upcoming national championship race a handful of kilometers outside of Kathmandu in Chobar when the earthquake struck. Initially dazed by the destruction, the cyclists immediately sprung to action when they heard screaming. Using their bare hands and ignoring neighbors who told them it was too hazardous, they worked together to free Pramila Nepali and her 7-year-old son Roshan, who had been buried alive.

The story caught the attention of the media, produced a flood of donations and inspired the team to continue relief efforts. “We were motivated to rescue earthquake victims in many different areas of Nepal,” said Ajay Pandit Chhetri, five-time Nepalese national mountain bike champion and five-time winner of Yak Attack, the highest mountain bike race on earth.

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Utilizing their racing, cycling, guiding and tour company connections to form a massive relief effort,  (NCRR) was born. This NGO consists of the Nepalese cross-country national mountain bike team (Ajay Pandit Chhettri, Roan Tamang, Narayan Gopal Mahajaran, Raj Kumar Shrestha, Suraj Rai, Laxmi Magar, Rajan Bhandari); as well as Santosh Rai, mountain bike guide and co-owner of Himalayan Single Track; Jenny Caunt, co-owner of Himalayan Single Track; and Jevi Limbu, mountain bike guide and Himalayan Single Track staff.

It took months before any form of government assistance reached some of the most heavily damaged villages in the aftermath of the earthquake. Roads were blocked by landslides and a fuel crisis kept potential aid vehicles at bay. The group took matters into their own hands and used the form of transportation they are most comfortable with to deliver help: a bicycle.

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“It can reach everywhere,” said Ajay, NCRR president. “We could move fast and get to remote areas in the first few weeks before the roads were properly open,” said Caunt. “But we were limited in what we could carry.”

Much-needed supplies such as first aid, food, tents, blankets, roof sheeting and water purification were delivered to villages via bicycle. Additionally, temporary schools were provided with books, pens, clothing, school bags and more. In addition to racing, the cyclists are also mountain bike guides with intimate knowledge of almost all trails. Were the mountain bikers the ideal first responders? No, but they were the only responders.

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“Mountain bikes are not ideal in mass emergency situations. Helicopters and government assistance and relief plans would have been much more efficient—but none of that happened,” said Caunt. “The entire time we were working [in our project area], we saw one helicopter, but it never landed, just circled around and went back.”

Ajay said the group did its best in a difficult situation to rescue and support victims. Today it is continuing to provide services to the villagers by building schools. Volunteers are using bicycles to travel to the village and supervise the construction work.

“It’s a 120 kilometer trip with about 2,000 meters in elevation gain. The boys use it as a training exercise as well to keep them fit for races,” said Jenny.

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Five months after the earthquake rocked Nepal, I traveled there with my husband to see first-hand what made this country notoriously unforgettable among travelers. In a land where corruption is rampant, visiting the country’s hotels, restaurants and shops was also one of the best, and most direct, ways to help ensure the money we were spending reached Nepalis.

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While we were there we planned to ride some of the country’s lesser-traveled dirt roads. As we mounted our bikes in Kathmandu, a cornucopia of conflicting sights, sounds and smells assaulted our senses as we made our way out of the city. Vibrant rickshaws pedaled on top of dusty brown streets. Burning incense tangled with smoldering trash in the air. Incessant honking harmoniously mingled with Om Mani Padme Hum chanting. And during our visit the sawing, drilling and hammering of new construction was interspersed throughout the chatter of daily lives.

Outside of the city we navigated the earthquake-riddled hillside over mud bogs, away from cliff drop-offs, up technical vertical terrain and through tiny villages. We passed hand-carved terraced rice paddies and massive swings made from bamboo set up for Dashain, Nepal’s greatest festival.

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When the sun started to set about 50 kilometers outside of Kathmandu, we searched for a place to spend the night and came up empty—April’s earthquake had wiped out our options. At a local restaurant, we met a lawyer/college professor who offered to let us stay with his family after learning of our situation.

“My home is your home,” he told us. “There is plenty of space to sleep.”

Five kilometers down the road, in a partially rebuilt home, with wide smiles and heaps of food, Bishnu’s brothers, wife and young son and daughter waited for us to arrive.

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Give and Go

Among the seven schools being built by Nepal Cyclists Ride to Rescue, four are completed and three are currently under construction. While contributions surged immediately following the earthquake, donors have since lost interest. The organization is in need of funds to complete the project and support victims.

“Most of the people helped only during the earthquake … but we are still helping by providing services,” said Ajay Pandit Chhettri, NCRR president.

To support NCRR’s efforts, you can donate directly through nepalcyclist.com.

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“In spite of the government’s passive nature, we did our best to recover earthquake damages. It’s been one year, but the government has not provided such services. We did and we are still doing it,” said Ajay.

After the earthquake, Nepal saw a dramatic decrease in tourism, but contrary to would-be travelers’ fears, the country is open—and waiting—for business.

“Everything is normal. It is safe now. A bicycle is a vehicle that can easily reach anywhere and everywhere. So, cyclists can come without any fear!” said Ajay.


Beth Puliti is a writer and photographer who has been traveling through Europe and Asia on her bicycle for the past 21 months. Follow her travels at bethpuliti.com and @bethpuliti.

 

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Feature: Ready for Anything

Illustrations: Chris Conlin
Originally published in Issue #41

What to do if you break a spoke

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 6.00.15 PMIt 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

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 6.00.58 PMThere 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

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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

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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

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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

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  • 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.

 

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How To: Wear with care

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WHAT MATERIALS ARE BEST FOR CYCLING OR OTHER ATHLETICS?

Synthetics are awesome but so are some natural fibers like wool. For us it is choosing the right tool for the job. Polyester is generally hydrophobic and does a be er job on the top than a nylon, however for durability in cycling shorts, we’ll often prefer nylon. And if you want compression, an elastane blend is necessary, however, it makes a top really perform poorly because it will soak with sweat/moisture and stay soaked resulting in a heavy and uncomfortable experience.

WHAT MAKES A MATERIAL WATERPROOF AND STILL BE BREATHABLE? HOW DOES THAT WORK?

Laminates, the layers that are impervious to water, have a microporous structure that has “pores” large enough for water vapor to escape but too small for liquid water droplets to drop through.

WHEN SHOPPING FOR SHORTS WITH A CHAMOIS PAD, WHAT KINDS OF FEATURES SHOULD PEOPLE BE LOOKING FOR?

If you’re shopping for bike shorts, look for a quality pad. If you’re buying at a bike shop, ask if anyone at the shop has used it. If they haven’t, ask them how they know it is good. After that, look for quality leg finishes that will last, and a weighty enough main material that will be supportive over time.

Thanks to: Sam Foos, Bontrager

WHAT KIND OF FIT DO YOU RECOMMEND FOR CYCLING?

Whatever you are comfortable in! Range of motion is key. Comfort is most important. I would not bring a knife to a gunfight, so if it’s race day and you’re comfortable in Lycra, by all means go for it. The Lycra should have strong compression and the fit around the crotch and legs should be snug but not overly tight. For most road rides that are mildly competitive, training oriented or racing, I choose Lycra kits. For casual all day rides, touring or general casual mountain bike rides I choose baggy shorts and a loose fi tting top for comfort, airflow and breathability.

WHY THE VARIATION IN PRICES OF ACTIVEWEAR AND OUTDOOR GEAR? SOME OF IT IS CRAZY EXPENSIVE. WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?

First, there is a large range in fabric qualities and trims. Fabric quality is very important when it comes to the cost of a garment. The higher the quality and additional treatments you have, the higher the price. Also high tech trim pieces such as waterproof zippers and seam welding will add to your end cost as well.

When it comes to fabrics the main difference in quality comes down to the yarn and weaving or knitting level. Higher quality yarn increases the price but also increases the hand feel, comfort, performance and longevity of the garment. The weaving process has a part in this pricing formula as higher quality weaving of yarns facilitates good structure in the finished fabric and affects the hand and the life of the yarn.

Lower quality coloring processes result in a lack of color fastness and promotes fading early in the life of the garment. Quality of craftsmanship also plays into this. Most clothing items are man-made. Very low price garments are mass produced and we mean MASS. The quality on these pieces is very hard to control.

Thanks to: Becky Lamphier and Mia Stearns, Club Ride Apparel

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HOW OFTEN SHOULD I BE WASHING MY CYCLING GEAR?

For base layers and things that you are sweating into, wash them as regularly as you would your gym clothes. A technical cleaner for base layers will help remove embedded odors (you know what I’m talking about!), as well as enhance the wicking ability of your next-to-skin gear. First, be sure to empty pockets, as washing lip balm into your clothing creates quite the mess! Then zip all zippers, and close all Velcro. No need to turn inside out. Really hot water can be good for getting things clean, but can also be bad for elastics, so be mindful of what the care label allows!

Hang dry if possible, and never, ever use fabric softeners, including dryer sheets, as they will leave behind a gunky residue which will reduce the performance. For outer layers, cleaning regularly with a technical cleaner will make sure they perform their best as well. If you notice visible dirt, then it is time to clean.

If your jacket is “wetting out” or absorbing water, that is also a great time to clean it. It is very important to use a technical cleaner meant for water-repellent items, as household detergents leave behind a residue that attracts water—not what you want in a jacket that’s supposed to repel water!

DO I REALLY NEED TO HANDWASH EVERYTHING OR ARE THE WASHING MACHINE AND DRIER OK?

Always read the care label, but most items are fine in the washing machine. Usually tumble drying on low is fine, too. Again, check the label.

WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO REMOVE STAINS FROM MUD? FOOD? BLOOD?

The best way to get out a stubborn stain is to pour a small amount of undiluted cleaning product directly on the stain and scrub it gently with a soft-bristled toothbrush. Let it sit for a few minutes, scrub again, then throw it in the wash. This technique works well on stubborn stains on cuffs and zipper areas.

Thanks to: Heidi Dale Allen, Nikwax North America

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IF YOU GET A TEAR IN YOUR GEAR OR APPAREL IN THE FIELD, WHAT’S THE BEST THING TO DO UNTIL YOU CAN HAVE IT REPAIRED? SLAP SOME DUCT TAPE ON THERE?

Duct tape is a decent quick fix for outerwear, but folks need to remove the tape as soon as they can. If left in place too long the adhesive residue from the tape will stay on the fabric even after the tape is removed. This leaves a sticky mess which is difficult to remove when it comes time to make a more permanent repair.

If someone wants a quick and more effective long term repair than duct tape, we recommend using Tenacious Tape Repair Tape made by Gear Aid/McNe Corp. It comes in a small 3 inch x 20 inch roll (or pre-cut shapes) and can be cut with scissors to a shape that suits a specific need. They also make it in multiple colors and works great on tents and outerwear. We prefer the colored versions over the clear because the colors are made of fabric and seem to hold up be er in most situations that the clear.

The only downside with Tenacious Tape is that it can be even more difficult to remove that duct tape, so if someone uses it, they should plan on keeping it in place for a long period. Gear Aid also makes a number of small outdoor gear repair kits that include sewing related supplies and the right ingredients for repairing a leaking sleeping pad.

MY RAIN SHELL DOESN’T SEEM TO BE AS WATERPROOF AS IT USED TO BE, WHY IS THAT?

Dirt, oil, sweat and detergent residue can mask the waterproof coating. Also, over time the water repellent finish will wear off. When either of these happen, you will notice water absorbing into the outer fabric of your jacket. Luckily, in the former instance, cleaning with a technical cleaner is all you need to restore the water-repellency.

If, after cleaning, your shell is still “wetting out,” then it is time to apply a waterproofing product like Nikwax TX Direct Wash-in, a Durable Water Repellant (DWR), which is a chemical finish that most technical fabrics have on them when new. The original DWR tends to wear off over time from normal use and then water will no longer bead up and shed off the fabric.

I find that the trick with re-applying DWR is to throw my jacket in the the dryer for about 10 minutes on medium to high heat after the wash cycle in order to better “set” the DWR onto the fabric. Doing this is probably not recommended by most outerwear companies because most pieces of outerwear these days have welded or bonded construction as well as seam tapes that are applied with heat. Always read the garment label for recommended drying suggestions or contact the manufacturer.

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WHAT ARE SOME TIPS FOR KEEPING YOUR APPAREL IN GOOD CONDITION FOR THE LONG HAUL?

Regular washing of outdoor apparel and equipment is probably the most important thing people can do the extend the life of their gear. Body oils, sunscreen and other contaminants can do long term and irreversible damage to technical fabrics. Zippers also benefit greatly from frequent washing. Fine dust and road grime gets into zippers and can wreak havoc on the way a zipper functions. Essentially that fine dust becomes an abrasive and every time you zip or unzip that tent zipper or jacket, the dust starts to damage the teeth and the zipper slider.

For technical garments, tents and sleeping bags we suggest using only a front loading washer (top loading agitator columns can damage tents) and a two-cycle wash. On the first cycle use Nikwax Tech Wash to clean the items, and then using Nikwax TX Direct Wash-in for the second wash (only the first cycle for sleeping bags). To dry a tent we suggest hanging it up by the stake-out loops in a garage or basement for a few days. Always make sure your tent is completely dry before packing it up for storage, otherwise you may find mold and mildew the next time you take it out, and that often is not something that can be fixed.

To dry a sleeping bag (or puffy jacket) you’ll need a decent-sized dryer. Put the dryer on low heat and check regularly to see if it is dry. If it is a down insulated bag or down jacket, toss 5-8 tennis balls into the dryer with the item being dried. The tennis balls will bounce around and help break up the wet clumps of down and the bag will dry faster. Resist the temptation to turn up the heat setting or you may find that you have melted the fabric of the item you are trying to maintain.

We also suggest storing a sleeping bag in a hanging position much like they have them hung up on a retail floor of an outdoor store, or at the very least in an oversized co on stuff sack so that the bag is not always compressed. Keeping a sleeping bag compressed all the time will reduce its temperature rating and won’t keep you as warm in the long run as it did when it was new.

For panniers or bikepacking bags we suggest washing them in the bath tub or utility sink with Nikwax Tech Wash and make sure to use an old toothbrush to clean out the teeth of the zippers that might have dirt or dust in them as well as any tough stains. Hang these items up and let them air dry.

Thanks to: Ma Menely, Mountain Soles & Outdoor Threads

 

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Feature: Bikes in Paradise

Rick Broomel, a commercial diver from Knoxville, Tennessee, sports a prime example of the classic Kwaj bike, complete with the gooseneck stem extension indigenous to Kwajalein Atoll.

Rick Broomel, a commercial diver from Knoxville, Tennessee, sports a prime example of the classic Kwaj bike, complete with the gooseneck stem extension indigenous to Kwajalein Atoll.

Words and photos: Jordan Vinson
Originally published in Issue #40

On a tiny flyspeck of land, in the middle of the massive Western Pacific, isn’t where you would expect to find a rich and thriving bicycle culture. The U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll, located on the remnants of an ancient volcano in the western archipelago of the Marshall Islands, is home to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site.

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Living among the installation’s array of radars, rocket launch pads, missile tracking stations and WWII-era Japanese pillboxes and blockhouses are roughly 1,200 Army personnel, MIT scientists and civilian contractors. Together, they operate and support a state-of-the-art American weapons test range and deep space surveillance site on the islands of Kwajalein, Roi-Namur and smaller satellite islands peppered along the rim of the largest natural lagoon on the planet.

They also ride bikes. A lot.

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Liz Mefford, from Denver, Colorado, hauls her stand-up paddle board using another feature of the Kwajalein Atoll bicycle culture: the modified trailer.

Wedged into rickety wooden bike racks, propped against swaying coconut palms and constantly tipping over in the steady trade winds, the number of bicycles on the installation is greater than the number of people living there. Even Copenhagen doesn’t have a bicycle ownership and usage rate to this degree.

The explanation for the small community’s apparent love for leg-powered travel is, at its core, rather simple: Because the garrison consists of only a handful of remote islands with a cumulative landmass no larger than a few big city blocks, no personal motorized vehicles are permitted. Nor are they required. Commutes to work are, generally, a breeze. A trip to Surfway, the garrison’s sole supermarket, takes only a few minutes—even when competing for cheese and avocados, both prized food items for remote island dwellers. When you need to haul a big load around, you simply attach a rugged, two-wheeled trailer and tow your payload home like a beast of burden.

Ron Sylvester tows his children Myles, left, and Kaya in his custom-made rickshaw on Kwajalein. From Florida, Sylvester is a 1600-ton vessel master and ship captain.

Ron Sylvester tows his children Myles, left, and Kaya in his custom-made rickshaw on Kwajalein. From Florida, Sylvester is a 1600-ton vessel master and ship captain.

Driving the Kwajalein and Roi-Namur communities’ rich diversity in bicycles is the residents’ desire to stand out from the crowd, said Normen “Auntie” Sablas, a long-time Kwajalein resident and logistics support coordinator for test range customers with the Missile Defense Agency, NASA and so on.

“Everybody has different personalities,” he said outside his home on a blustery afternoon in early February. “So they want to fit their bikes to their own personalities. Some like bikes with the high-rise handlebars … And some prefer just a standard look and feel. It’s all about individual preference.”

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The peculiar “high-rise” handlebars that Sablas mentioned are usually one of the first things newcomers notice about the Kwaj (island speak for Kwajalein) and Roi-Namur bike scene. Called “goosenecks” by locals, they’re emblematic of the classic Kwaj bike, and at first glance they look both goofy and completely inefficient in terms of getting anywhere quickly. But Sablas pointed out the true utility of the gooseneck: comfort level and cool points.

“It’s easier to ride, and it’s easier on your back,” he said. “You’re sitting up straight. The only problem is when you’re riding against the wind. But other than that, it’s kind of a cool thing to ride on it.”

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Fellow Kwajalein resident Michael Symanski hit on another key point: Nobody’s really going anywhere very quickly. “My strongest and most common impression of the beach cruiser bike culture here is best described as ‘island time,’” he said. “Extremely relaxed, mellow and comfortable, such to the point that the slow pace of riding seems to defy the laws of physics.”

Nailing down the origins of the Kwajalein gooseneck is difficult. Sablas, who owns and lends out more than 100 Sun Bicycles beach cruisers to visiting engineers, Missile Defense Agency mission leaders and other visitors, has lived on Kwajalein off and on since 1975. He’s never known a time in which the classic longneck stem wasn’t in vogue.

Michael Symanski, a fire systems tech from Chicago, uses his Kwaj bike to haul his surfboard to a favorite surfing locale on Kwajalein.

Michael Symanski, a fire systems tech from Chicago, uses his Kwaj bike to haul his surfboard to a favorite surfing locale on Kwajalein.

Army Signal Corps footage shot in 1972 and recently digitized by a National Archives team in Maryland documents the use of the gooseneck in the early 1970s, a time when thousands more people lived on the garrison to support America’s Cold War ballistic missile defense strategy.

According to Bill Remick, a former long-time Kwaj resident and author of a history on the island titled “Just Another Day In Paradise,” the use of the gooseneck has to have sprung up sometime during the late 1950s or early 1960s. It was at a time when an influx of civilian contractors influx of civilian contractors began streaming in to support the Army’s brand-new Nike Zeus anti-ballistic missile system designed to destroy Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles.

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“I heard from two sailors who were there [in] ’55-’56, and none of the military guys had bikes,” Remick wrote via Facebook from his home outside Phoenix. “They either ran or walked to where they needed to go … If I had to guess, it began with the arrival of construction people. Folks with the requisite skills to make the goosenecks.”

Regardless of the true origins of the high-rise stem, there’s much more to the bicycle culture of Kwajalein and Roi- Namur than goosenecks and Sun Bicycles beach cruisers. Cannibalizing existing frames and transforming them into completely new rides has a long track record on the far-flung Army base, where free time abounds and replacement parts can be hard to come by.

Few understand the Kwajalein and Roi-Namur communities’ obsession over bicycle customization better than Doug Hepler, an industrial technology and history teacher at Kwajalein’s small high school. A former metal worker with the Navy, he has cut, sculpted and welded aluminum and steel into roughly 20 bicycles over the years, many of which are one-off Frankenbikes that are both a means of getting around the island and a medium for creative expression.

Doug Hepler, an industrial technology and history teacher from Galveston, Texas, shows off the custom-welded trike he uses to haul everything from groceries to scuba tanks.

Doug Hepler, an industrial technology and history teacher from Galveston, Texas, shows off the custom welded trike he uses to haul everything from groceries to scuba tanks.

The islands’ bike customization culture is a big part of what makes living on the installation a real diversion from life in the average American city or town, he said. “I think it really displays the great creativity that both our engineers and non-engineers have,” he said. “It shows real ingenuity to help make this space the world-class facility it is. And it shows what people will do to accommodate their rides to get around as comfortably as possible.” 

The small fleet of run-of-the-mill Sun and Giant bikes parked outside his family’s home is a testament to the bicycle’s role as an inescapable feature of life on the islands. But it’s his custom-built DIY creations that speak volumes on the importance of taking an idea, making it your own and doing it with limited resources found on the islands.

Sandra Garrison, a radar systems engineer from Colorado Springs, Colorado, joins Gene Littlefield, an ALTAIR engineer, in front of a Japanese pillbox on Roi.

Sandra Garrison, a radar systems engineer from Colorado Springs, Colorado, joins Gene Littlefield, an ALTAIR engineer, in front of a Japanese pillbox on Roi.

His “red car,” for instance—a four-wheeled beast he cobbled together using scrap parts found at the landfill and elsewhere around the island—is a prime example. Taking inspiration from a junked child’s pedal car his son had found one day, Hepler decided he could make one himself—but for an adult. Like most of the original bikes he fashions, the emphasis was on re-utilizing spent parts and buying brand-new as little as possible.

“The wheels were donated from a friend who collected bike wheels, and he gave me a stack about five feet high when he [moved],” he said. “I bought the chain and the spray paint and the stainless bolts. Everything else came from the dump … and parts I found by the side of the road.”

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Hepler took a similar approach with another custom ride he built, this time a cargo-friendly workhorse tricycle named “the truck,” which he uses to haul everything from groceries to lumber and loads of air tanks needed for the scuba diving classes he teaches. Because “the truck” was welded together completely from scrap aluminum pulled from the frame of an old backyard awning, the only items he had to buy brand-new were hardware, a chain and some other minor odds and ends.

However, like everything else in life, bikes have life cycles, Hepler explains. He’s not afraid of parting ways with his creations after he’s gotten his use out of them. Maybe he’ll sell a particular bike or, even better, cannibalize it for parts to use in other custom rides. “Yeah, I’m a cannibal,” he said with a smile. “I’m definitely a cannibal.” 

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The passion to modify the bikes and create original designs from the ground up is a carry-over from America’s obsessive car culture, among a few other reasons, he said. “I think it’s pride,” he said. “I think a few [residents], and I emphasize the word few, just like to show off. Some, like me, like to build them just for fun. I have more fun building them than I do riding them. Other people are determined to build something unique so that it’s obvious it wasn’t bought at the store—and therefore it’s a lot harder to steal.”

Tom Sandifer, another Kwaj modifier, echoed Hepler’s opinion. Having just finished a custom-made two-wheeled cargo carrier in early February, he said that the drive for modifying bicycles lies in people’s desire to strike personal identities for themselves. There’s also the free time people often have, he added.

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“Part of it’s just to be unique, to be different,” he said, loading his rig with packages at the Kwajalein post office. “Everybody’s got a Sun bike here. Everybody wants to have something a little unique. I’ve seen the recumbent bikes. I’ve seen the three-wheeled bikes and four-wheeled bikes and all kinds of different little contraptions out here. It’s just something to kill the time and just be a little interesting.”

To call Sandifer’s bike “a little more interesting” would be an understatement, though. Consisting of the back end of a Schwinn cruiser mashed together with cannibalized sections of an aluminum Huffy frame, his two-wheeler features a large cargo bed that rests between his gooseneck stem and an extended fork that stretches out about eight feet from the rear tire. What might seem like a completely impractical setup to the untrained eye, Sandifer’s bike makes complete sense to him.

“It’s Kwaj. Everybody’s got a bike. Everybody’s got a trailer,” he said. “I had [a trailer] on the back of my bike, but it made the bike top-heavy, and I could only carry so much on it. I just wanted something that I could carry stuff with and just have one piece.” 

Joy McAndrews, a nurse at the small hospital on Kwajalein, and John Marr, a fire captain at the Kwajalein Fire Department, finish a scuba diving session. McAndrews’ three-wheeled cargo bike comes in handy in situations like this.

Joy McAndrews, a nurse at the small hospital on Kwajalein, and John Marr, a fire captain at the Kwajalein Fire Department, finish a scuba diving session. McAndrews’ three-wheeled cargo bike comes in handy in situations like this.

The bikes of Kwajalein Atoll may be extensions of riders’ personalities, but they share one major element in common: They are the residents’ only means of personal travel. Chains and forks broken down by heavy salt spray, humidity and heat; the act of dodging coconuts, crabs and rats along paths and streets; the struggle of pedaling into the trade winds and having to root around the island looking for your “borrowed” bike are only a few aspects of the islands’ rich bike culture that the residents can collectively identify with.

And as long as the missiles keep flying and the radars keep humming, those bikes—whatever forms they may take—will be there with those people, making their lives a bit more interesting and their time on the islands a bit more special.

 

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Feature: The Linchpin Ladies

Words: Jessica Glenza
Photos: Cole Wilson
Published in Bicycle Times Issue #39

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If you eye a motley crew of ladies biking New York City, two dozen strong and high-fiving all the way, there’s a good chance you’ve bumped into WE Bike NYC or a group they’ve inspired.

The all-ladies biking collective has toured the five boroughs for three years now, teaching mechanics classes, holding cold weather clinics and popping off for hot cocoa. And the nonprofit that started as a bicycle mechanic’s graduate thesis has gained some serious street cred.

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In March, the group members presented their own flavor of activism on a panel at the National Bike Summit. In September, members ceremoniously painted green New York’s 1,000th mile of bike lane. WE Bike, according to bicycling community observers, is a “linchpin” in a new wave of feminist activism that has turned an eye toward leveling the gender gap in bicycling.

Founded at the start of a new grassroots push to get more women on two wheels, WE Bike (or Women’s Empowerment Through Bicycles) encourages urban women to join their male counterparts who commute, race and fix bicycles.

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The group doesn’t advocate one kind of bicycling, but holds events to introduce women to every sort imaginable. Classes teach riders how to fix a flat tire, introduce them to scenic road routes near New York and offer tips for riding in the frigid weather, to name a few.

WE Bike’s current leader, Casey Ashenhurst, joined in the group’s early days, about three years ago. Ashenhurst had lived in New York for three years in 2012, when she saw a WE Bike NYC flier in a shop window.

Her first thought: “I need to go to this party.”

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“I literally bought the T-shirt and was like ‘Where can I sign up? I want to get involved,'” she said. “I got really jazzed … The people that I met who were representatives of WE Bike, they encouraged me to come out, they said, ‘Sign up for our newsletter, here take a sticker, put on this temporary tattoo,’ and really made me feel part of it.”

By her second meeting with WE Bike, she volunteered to be team captain in a five boroughs tour, helping organize other members for the ride. Now, she heads up WE Bike as resident organizer, but is quick not to take too much credit.

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“We wouldn’t exist without all of the other people,” Ashenhurst said. “Our ride leaders, and just random stuff … We have people that help our Moms on Wheels initiative, our website stuff, all kinds of random things—special events.”

Other grassroots organizations have sprung up almost simultaneously. On the East Coast, women-specific groups are organizing around locations, such as Women Bike PHL in greater Philadelphia, and around identities, such as Black Girls Do Bike in Washington D.C.

The more established advocacy organizations are getting on board as well. Over the last two years, the League of American Bicyclists has given away more than a half dozen “mini-grants” of $3,000 to support women’s cycling programs around the country. The Bicycle Transportation Alliance launched a “Women Bike” campaign in August 2015, and women’s advocacy is now a key fixture at the annual National Bike Summit.

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“Lots of people around the country look to WE Bike as an example, as ‘How did you do this?'” said Carolyn Szczepanski, who works as a consultant with New York’s pedestrian safety Vision Zero program and the Alliance for Biking & Walking. “They’ve really been kind of a linchpin of the women’s bike community.”

WE Bike NYC’s founder, Elizabeth Jose, is now the membership coordinator for the Southeast Seattle Tool Library. She moved west in 2014, two years after forming WE Bike NYC as an outgrowth of her graduate thesis at New York University.

Her interest in biking started as an undergrad at the University of California at Santa Cruz in roughly 2006, she said, where a bicycle provided freedom on the hilly, 2,000-acre campus.

“I was using my friend’s little brother’s mountain bike, and I’m not a short person, and that was not a good solution,” said Jose. When a neighbor gave Jose a bike (missing pedals and a seat) she brought it to the campus’ volunteer-run bicycle shop, The Bike Church, for help.

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That free bike, and the freedom it bestowed, was the beginning of a long relationship with two wheels. Jose biked across the country in 2008.

“[I] learned the bike mechanics out of sheer terror because I was going to be riding across the country, and what if something went wrong?” she said about how she learned the trade. Later she commuted to work on her bike in Boston and when she moved to New York to attend NYU. When she got a job as a bike mechanic, she assumed there was a ready community of female cyclists in the city of more than 8 million.

“There’s a competitive pinball league and it’s full—and I was like ‘Of course there are probably a zillion lady bike groups operating in the city, and all I have to do is find the one that meets my needs,'” Jose said. “So, I started Googling and there was nothing.”

“I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe there were no groups for riding bikes, as ladies,” she said.

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At the same time, Jose was shopping her thesis focused on a girl’s biking program, titled “Strong Women Start on a Bicycle,” to different nonprofits. Most of the responses she received said no one felt ready to teach the class, but instead wanted to take one. She sent out the first WE Bike NYC email a few weeks later to 30 “bikey” friends.

Sixty people emailed back.

“When women’s [biking] was organizing WE Bike back in 2012 it was really at the start of a visible movement around gender equity in bicycling,” said Szczepanski.

New York, it turned out, was a perfect petri dish for testing how to engage women to ride bicycles. It included demographic subgroups likely to ride bicycles, but not readily depicted in popular biking culture.

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At the time she wrote the thesis, women in New York were less likely to be white (44 percent versus 72.4 percent), and more likely to be poor (16.2 percent versus 10.1 percent) than the national average, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Women in New York are also more likely to be the head of household (18.7 percent versus 12.6 percent), meaning they need practical advice on how to link trips—for example, from the pharmacy to day care to the grocery store.

So, after the first meeting of about eight bike riding New York ladies, the group formulated a plan. Materials in Spanish addressed the needs of Latinos, while playground meet-ups allowed moms to test each other’s bikes and carriers and discuss the safest routes for family riding (with more bathroom breaks).  The Latinos engaged by WE Bike’s Spanish language materials are now thriving, according to current members. Mujeres en Movimiento (Women in Motion) are semi-independent and based in Queens. Moms on Wheels continues to bring moms out in the city to socialize on bikes.

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“The women’s movement in cycling didn’t just materialize in the last 10 years, or five years,” said Szczepanski. “But, there’s been a recent resurgence in organizing around identity in gender.” Ashenhurst said when she looks at all the new bike organizations and campaigns springing up everywhere from Boston to San Diego, her enthusiasm is hard to contain.

“I’m like ‘Yes! We need more!'” she said. “All women–I want all the women–to be able to ride bikes together.”

 

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An Iceland Adventure: 1,000 Miles on Ring Road

Iceland-9

By Colt Fetters

I awake as the plane touches down at Keflavik International Airport in Iceland. It’s midnight. I wipe the sleep from my eyes and exit the plane into a small airport. We work our way through customs and to the baggage claim; standing alone in the middle of an aisle are our banged and beaten bike boxes. We unwrap our bikes from the unconventional packaging we threw together hours before our flight and quietly assemble our bikes and pack our panniers.

Surprisingly, despite a few scratches, dings, and dents, our machines are in decent shape. Being much too excited to sleep, we set out on the road in the dim northern light at 6am, greeted by a barren landscape filled with rock and sand. Dark clouds move slowly overhead.

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As fresh college graduates, my buddy Luke and I are cash poor, which means our trip has a very tight budget. Trying to save money, we managed to find a couch-surfing host in Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik. Our host, Guðmundur, insisted that we call him Gummi; we didn’t argue because weren’t able to pronounce his full name anyway.

We owe our trip to Gummi, since before our arrival we really had no plan, and no idea where we would be bicycling. Through a long night of deliberation, Gummi was able to talk us into attempting the entire Ring Road, which covers 828 miles, circling around the country of Iceland. That night, while lying in a miniature bed, which is usually reserved for Gummi’s young daughter (with my feet hanging from the edge), I worried that with our lack of experience, we may be biting off a bit more than we could chew. I try and remember if we informed Gummi that this is our first ever bike tour.

The following morning, Gummi escorted us through the weaving bike trails of Reykjavik to the edge of town. He rolled slowly to a stop and pointed to a busy highway with no shoulder. “That is the Ring Road” he exclaimed. This was as far as he was taking us.

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Luke and I set out on the Ring Road as the light rain grew progressively heavier. Being from Washington State, we’re used to rainfall, but not this kind. Rain hurtled through the air sideways, invading every nook and cranny, soaking nearly everything we owned. The pockets of my rain shell filled with puddles of water. It’s our first day on the Ring Road and my ‘waterproof’ cycling computer has already died, along with my iPhone. I chalk these losses up as a sacrifice to Odin, the mythological Germanic god; hopefully he will take pity on us for the rest of the trip after these sacrifices.

We pedal slowly up a mountain pass while strong gusts of wind intermittently blow us into the middle of the lane, where speeding traffic weaves around us. Icelandic people have a fascination with extremely large tires; most of their vehicles are equipped with them, and if they happen to run over one of us, I doubt they would even feel a bump.

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We quickly learned to ride during the night to avoid the wind and the traffic; this is possible with the perpetual daylight at 66 degrees north. Seriously, during the summer the damned sun never sets. Our destination for the day lies roughly 90 kilometers away from Reykjavik, and after 55 kilometers we roll into the town of Selfoss. After being beaten down by the storm, we decide to hole up for the night and reevaluate our plans in the morning. Despite it being 10pm, the sun lies along the horizon as we set up our tent and crawl in. The birds chirp loudly; I suppose they are just as confused as we are with this never-ending daylight. I fold my buff, slide it over my eyes to block the light, and fall fast asleep.

The Plan

Our route is simple: follow Highway 1—known as the Ring Road—and find detours along the way. Each morning we break out the map and pick a town 50 to 100 kilometers away. After a week our routine flows easily, we boil water for coffee and oatmeal, break down camp, load our bikes and plop our sore butts onto familiar leather saddles. During our longer days of riding, we need extra motivation, and the best motivation for two perpetually hungry bicyclists is food!

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Out in the distance I see them, the waving red flags, indicating a gas station, which are usually coupled with Iceland’s version of a fast food restaurant. More importantly, the home of the iconic Icelandic hotdog. These dogs are little meaty tubes of pure stoke sprinkled with fried onions and mustard. Hotdogs are about the cheapest food you can find in Iceland, so every now and then we eat a few too many. Two dogs in one sitting is normal, unless it’s a holiday, in which case the market is closed and we have most likely run out of groceries. During those days, it’s not uncommon for us to eat four or five dogs chased by a few soft serve ice cream cones for dessert. Originally we thought we would finish this trip fit and trim, now we realize that we may be gaining some weight.

Food isn’t cheap here in Iceland, so we’ve resorted to other means. We post up at the local fast food restaurant/gas station in town while hordes of tourists wander from their travel buses, buy expensive meals and leave leftovers on their tables. We’ve taken to nabbing these leftovers once they’ve finished. Sounds tacky but it works well, except for today. Luke discovers a plate of hearty bread left on a table that he grabs and brings back to our table, in his state of hunger he fails to notice it hardly looks to have been touched. As soon as he sits, we notice a lady looking around confused and suspicious, likely looking for her plate of bread sitting on our table. We watch her walk to the front counter, talk to the cashier, and return to her table with a new plate of bread. Luke quickly destroys the evidence and stares down at the ground while chewing with bulging cheeks. We decide we need a bit more reconnaissance before any more of these missions.

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As days of cycling turn into weeks, we cruise down the road’s centerline while large dark clouds loom overhead. The wind is always blowing and it seems that it only travels in one direction: straight into our faces, slowing us to a snail’s pace. We learn in Iceland there’s no such thing as a tailwind. The key is to take turns drafting off each other, following within inches to stay out of the wind. Following this close can be tricky—“Icelandic kiss” is becoming all too familiar—this happens when one of our front tires kisses the other’s rear tire, which can sometimes sends one of us wildly out of control.

Throughout our tour we heard mumblings of a short cut, some of these mumblings good and others bad. This short cut would take us up and over a mountain pass we’ve been told should be devoid of snow this time of year, then dump us into a valley just short of Egilsstadir, one of the biggest towns on the eastern side of Iceland. We arrive at the turnoff to our shortcut, and are immediately greeted by dirt roads and a large yellow sign cautioning us of the extreme weather on the pass and 17 percent grades. Starting with fresh legs, we attack the hills with vigor but soon the sustained steepness pushes us to a crawl.

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Mark Jenkins, in his story “Off the Map” states: “Pushing a bicycle is absurd. It’s a sacrilege. Like pushing an airplane or rowing a sailboat.” Well, Mark may be right, but sometimes there’s just no other choice. Being inexperienced bicycle tourers means we have unnecessarily heavy bicycles, mix that with unpaved steep grades full of potholes and well, maybe even Mark would be pushing his bicycle. So at some points we push, at some points we pedal, and finally there’s snow, which turns the air cold and so we pedal some more.

Fortunately we pedal through mostly dry roads that split massive 20-foot tall snow banks, along giant creeks rushing with snowmelt, and pedal up about 3,000 vertical feet. After a couple hours climbing, we reach the top; we are stunned by the beauty of the vast emptiness of the snow-covered mesa. We stay long enough to don our puffy jackets and a second pair of gloves before the cold drives us down the other side of the pass into warmer weather. At the end of the day, I crawl into my old down sleeping bag and am greeted by a familiar stale aroma: the smell that sends my mind stirring with memories of all the wild places this bag and I have been together. I drift off to sleep thinking this particular day of bicycling may be one of the best in my entire life, right behind the day I learned how to ride.

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Today, we’re riding our steel steeds 70 kilometers to the town of Egilsstaðir. We struggle to pronounce any Icelandic words, so instead of trying we use nicknames for towns, streets or even people. For instance, Bústaðavegur would be Bust-a-move or Hvammstangi would be referred to as Hamstring. We’ve noticed that locals don’t really appreciate the nicknames so we’ve learned to keep them to ourselves.

Hot tubs and old men

Once arriving in Egilsstaðir, we set up camp, ditch our gear, and ride light bikes to the local town pool. With all of the geothermal activity in Iceland, community pools are very popular. Almost every town has some kind of pool, and for a small fee, we soak our sore legs in the hot tubs and revitalize our spirits.

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Our hope is to meet young Icelandic ladies; to our disappointment, the tubs are normally filled with older overweight Nordic men. We sit and soak anyway, knowing these tubs are our only chance of recovering from the punishment that we put them through each day. Icelandic ladies haven’t seemed to take much interest in us; maybe our bicycle clothing doesn’t quite cut the fashion standards, or that we’re too cheap to buy them a drink, or maybe it’s the odd body odor that we can’t seem to get rid of. Whatever it is, we don’t let it crush our psyche.

Once we leave Egilsstaðir, it’s a three-day ride before we reach the next town. Due to the lack of civilization, this segment is when our bikes are at their heaviest, packed with meals and water. We set out with our fully loaded bikes, our panniers about to burst open at the seams, and are immediately greeted by the wind.

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With each pedal stroke our bikes surge forward, and my mind slowly floats away. The mind travels to strange places while on a bike ride, processing old memories, mulling over past experiences and relationships, or it just floats. Sometimes hours can pass and seem like minutes. Riding bikes is our day job: eight hours of work with an hour-long lunch break – although a really cool day job where the views are world class and the air is fresh and clean.

We’re making good time, better than expected. Some days we ride over 100 kilometers just because we can’t wait to see what’s around the next bend in the road. Being ahead of schedule has given us the opportunity to take a significant detour. Outside the “large” city of Akureyri, we leave the Ring Road and set out on a quiet country road, hoping to bicycle as far north as possible.

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Ferry time to the Arctic Circle

Another early morning, the alarm on my watch breaks the silence with its insistent beeps. I start boiling water for coffee and oatmeal as Luke breaks down the tent. We ride our bikes through a quiet sleeping town and down to the port where our ferry awaits. People give us odd looks as we ride our bikes onto the ferry; a shipmate helps us carefully strap our bikes to the large bins of fish at the back of the vessel. Destination is Grimsey Island, the most Northern point of Iceland, where we plan to ride the few kilometers into the outer edges of the Arctic Circle. We stand in the open air on the front of the ferry, straining our eyes to catch glimpses of whales and porpoises out in the distance. Grimsey Island is a birdwatchers paradise.

Once we arrive, we unstrap our bikes from the bins of fish, wheel them off the ferry, and set out through narrow streets, which quickly turn to gravel and then to simple dirt paths. Swarms of arctic tern, gulls, and puffins soar overhead as we ride our bicycles down narrow dirt paths until we reach the most northern tip of the island; we’ve arrived in the Arctic Circle. Sitting in the grass next to my bicycle, I stare north at the seemingly endless Greenland Sea and ponder what my younger self would think of all this. I try and remind myself of what I’m doing and where I am in the world, because so much of the time, this all feels too normal.

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After four weeks on the road while coasting down the long winding road, we manage a view of the capitol–Reykjavik—the last stop on our tour. I’m filled with elation at the sight of the finish; however, this also means our trip is coming to an end. The sadness is a fleeting emotion and I embrace the sense of victory and accomplishment. I find myself dancing on my bicycle as I cruise down the hill toward our final destination.

Only a few months ago this trip was nothing but a half-baked plan derived over a few beers at our local college bar, and now we’ve actually accomplished the trek all the way around the entire Ring Road along with a couple of detours! After a month in the tent together, cycling beside each other day after day, we weren’t sure we were ready to be done. Our bicycles had become part of our everyday lives, and though we had pedaled them every day for a month, there was nothing else we wanted to do, except ride just a little further.

Iceland-8Epilogue

Pulling into the downtown metropolis of the capital city Reykjavik is surreal. A month before we had left this city not knowing what was ahead of us and now we are back with sore legs, knee problems, a few extra pounds of belly fat, and 1,000 miles under our belt. Detours here and there slowly bumped up our mileage, increasing our total distance traveled from the originally planned 828 miles to just over 1,000. The end of our incredible, epic—and sometimes arduous—tour called for a celebration. How to celebrate in Iceland? The only way we know how: hotdogs and beer, of course.

 

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