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Touring aphorisms I think I made up
Bait & switch! I start off with a couple of aphorisms but wind up with what are better described as observations. I think they're all pretty good, though, even if they never will achieve the popularity of such classics as "a fool and his money are soon parted" or "fish and visitors stink after three days".
-- There are no hard days on a tour, only slow ones. Midway through Virginia I encountered the first really challenging hills. They were long and steep and endlessly switchbacked. I wouldn't get a hundred feet up them before having to drop to my lowest gear (a 22 inch gear, low even by touring standards), which I'd stay in the entire rest of the way up. I might ride at 4 miles per hour for 30, 45 minutes, alternating sitting and standing, sitting and standing. It was a lot of work, and I felt no shame in stopping for a few minutes in the middle to clear the lactic acid out of my legs. Anyhow, eventually I'd get to the top and then descend (to about the level at which I'd started an hour earlier), and then begin again on the next hill. It took forever to cover even 10 miles on those days but at the end of them I was never as tired as I had supposed I would be. Indeed except for the very first day in the mountains, I was still feeling pretty fresh come 5 or 6 o'clock.
I was in decent shape to start and getting stronger every day, but I decided that the real explanation is that when you're on a tour and not hurrying to get anywhere, you freely slow to whatever pace that you figure you can keep up forever. The result is that a difficult route will take you all day but at the end you'll feel about the same as if you'd ridden twice as far on the flat.
All that said, there were a couple of days in Kansas when head and crosswinds made it hard to control the bike at any speed. Eight hours of that kind of riding was exhausting no matter how slow Rob & I went. It is ironic that the "hardest" days on the bike should come in the flattest part of the country.
-- There is no such thing as "picking up the pace" on a touring bike. The converse of the foregoing, it might also be stated as, "you can ride hard but you'll still be slow". When you're bicycle touring you're pushing around a heavy, aerodynamically hostile machine. The slightest rise slows you down (indeed a loaded touring bike is an excellent incline-detector) and the real enemy of speedy cycling -- wind resistance -- is substantial and impossible to reduce. (As low as you crouch behind your handlebars, your panniers still catch the wind like a parachute.) You can double your effort and maybe you'll add half a mile an hour to your average speed, finishing a seven hour day about 15 minutes sooner and winding up too tired to walk. It's not worth it. The only sensible way to cover more ground in a day is simply to ride longer.
-- A 50% chance of rain will still get you 100% wet. This speaks for itself. I probably heard it somewhere before, but one 50% day it popped into my head as though I'd invented it so I'm including it.
-- A loaded touring bike is as good as a dog or a baby for starting conversations. There's no trick to it with this accessory; people approached me all the time to chat. I got so used to it that I felt kind of naked and uninteresting whenever I would venture places away from my bike and in civilian clothes.
-- The most boring stretches were in the Colorado mountains. This is counterintuitive. The scenery was great, but the scale was so large! Rob and I would start the day with a lovely view of mountains ahead and to the sides. After two hours the view would be unchanged. In addition, unlike Kansas, which every few miles featured a tree or a bizarre machine or even a whole farm off to the side of the road -- something to look at as you rode by -- Colorado was empty. If you wanted to look at something close by, you could look at the pavement.
-- The U.S. seems larger by car than by bicycle. This one surprised me too. I once drove with a friend from Ann Arbor to Seattle; it took three days, and the continent (actually only that 2/3 of it) seemed vast and endless. I figured that covering a greater distance under my own power would make it seem larger still. But that sense never emerged. In fact if anything I came away with the opposite impression, that the U.S. is not so big after all. I think it's because when we're in a car we expect to cover large distances (i.e. get somewhere), but on a bike we're used to modest accomplishments. When we drive for the better part of a week and still aren't where we set out to go, it starts to feel like a hell of a long way. But taking several weeks on a bike to cross the country isn't much of a surprise. After all, what do you expect? And then the fact that an ordinary human can string together a bunch of unremarkable bike rides and actually go from the Atlantic to the Pacific means that the distance can't be that great. (See next entry.)
-- Riding across the country isn't remarkable. I mean, of course it is, and if I weren't proud of the accomplishment I wouldn't be wasting all this time writing about it. Nevertheless it was amazing how mundane, how ordinary the task became after just a couple of weeks. Once you're in fair shape (which has to happen), you can ride 50 or 75 mile days just about forever. You get up in the morning and pedal for 6 or 7 hours at a pace you like. In a week and without really working you'll have covered 400 miles and crossed one or two state lines. String enough of those days together -- even taking off every fourth or fifth day -- and before the seasons can change you will have run out of continent. Anybody can do it. The real challenges to riding cross-country are finding the time and deciding to accept the minor daily uncertainties (e.g. weather, flat tires, ad hoc lodging) that accompany -- no, make -- the adventure. The ultimate ordinariness of the expedition may be the most surprising insight of the trip.
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Page posted August 27, 1997