Prep Your Ride
To ride long distances you will need a bicycle on which you are comfortable all day every day. You may discover this bike by trial and error, and yours may be totally different than mine, but since I have found mine, please let me share some ideas for your search.
Using a bicycle as your vehicle will save you lots of money. You will be well served by investing what you can afford on a quality vehicle. You don’t need a $10,000 racing bike, but there are a broad variety of commuting and touring bikes available through any reputable bike shop. Please don’t buy a cheap bike from a big box store.
There’s nothing wrong with a used bike. As long as it fits your body, any good quality steel frame will work. A quick way to judge the quality of the frame is to look at the dropouts, where the frame holds the rear wheel. Quality dropouts are forged or cast, not stamped out of a piece of sheet metal.
It can also be nice to have braze-ons to mount the accessories you need, water bottle cages, racks, and fenders. Clamps can fill in where there is no place threaded for mounting bolts, but they are a bit less graceful. The ideal frame features direct, elegant cable routing and is light but strong.
Some people tour on aluminum frames in spite of concerns that the ride can be harsh.
Composite (carbon fiber) frames and components are rare among touring cyclists because of questions about durability. Wood and bamboo bikes look good, but I haven’t tried them.
I can assure you steel is real. A light steel frame has just a bit of flex, softening the jolts of the road, but not absorbing your efforts to move faster. It can withstand a great amount of stress and, if you don’t let it rust or get run over, will last several lifetimes. Chromalloy steel has proven itself worthy.
I recommend against shock absorbers for touring bikes. I know riders who have used them successfully, but they add weight and reduce efficiency, because it wastes
energy to compress springs. Elbows and knees are great for absorbing shocks as long as you keep them bent.
If you choose to use shocks, please, for the sake of safety, be sure your shocks can be adjusted to accommodate the extra weight of your load. Otherwise, they will bottom out and probably make the bike harder to handle on normal roads. I watched a dear friend crash because cheap shock absorbers made her loaded bicycle difficult to control. If you must have a shock, consider a Thudbuster.
If you are fortunate enough to live near a bike co-op or community bike shop, please use their services to learn how to completely check your bike, upgrading where you can afford it. Used components and accessories might meet your needs, but even new ones won’t be so costly if you can install them yourself. You will be a better rider on a bike you assemble yourself, because you will understand the machine that carries you.
Correct fit is crucial. You shouldn’t try to ride a bike that isn’t comfortable. Take the time and seek out the expertise to assure that your bike fits you perfectly. Test ride repeatedly before settling on a bike. Keep adjusting until you can ride comfortably. Once you find the perfect frame, the next priorities are investing in upgraded wheels and a comfortable saddle (seat).
Touring bikes carry heavy loads over a variety of surfaces and need strong wheels. The wheels I build for touring have double-wall, triple box rims, where each box is a triangle. This makes a light, but very rigid rim. I use 36 double-butted spokes in a four cross pattern, adding flex to the wheel. By contrast, many bikes ship with 32 15-guage spokes in a three cross pattern, often on single-walled rims.
Consult a custom wheel builder. You are best served by learning to build your own wheels. Most tourists carry a few spare spokes so they can perform emergency repairs. Original wheels on most bicycles are inadequate for heavy loads on rough roads. I’ve seen cheap wheels perform under stress, but don’t choose to have them on my bike. Wheel failure is rarely injurious, but it can delay your trip.
Inexperienced cyclists usually think a soft, wide saddle will be more comfortable. If you only ride a couple hours a week, it probably will be. But if you ride six or eight hours a day, you’ll want the thin, hard variety. Less cushion means less contact and less moving around. Ideally, your weight should be only on your sit bones, which will get accustomed to it. Any other contact increases friction as your legs move.
Everybody I know who has tried a leather saddle for at least a month (they take a
while to conform to your shape) tells me they are the most comfortable. I know I need minimal pressure in the center, so I look for a cutout to keep pressure off my prostate. Women tell me those cutouts are better for them, too. I’m intrigued by double slung saddles that move independently on each side, like legs do.
The nose of the saddle is your steering mechanism. At speed, you steer a bike by leaning into the turn, rather than moving the handlebars. This is why people can ride with no hands. I know people who ride noseless saddles, but none that ride them quickly. I like to ride fast and lean my corners.
Getting to Fast
The modern safety bicycle is an elegant machine, the most efficient mode for moving a person across the land; more person-miles per calorie than a horse or a high speed train. There are several factors that affect the efficiency of your machine. We’ll briefly examine weight, road resistance, wind resistance, and gearing.
Weight is important, especially rotating weight. Imagine two fleas on your bicycle, one on the top tube and one on the rim. When you push the bicycle for ten feet, the flea on top of the frame moves ten feet, while the one on the rim travels several times as far by a dizzying route. The point is that you carry rotating parts, such as rims and cranks, much further. Therefore, rotating weight matters more.
Of course, the most important place to shave weight from a bike is around the fringes of the engine (that’s you). Regular riding and a wholesome diet will help you to accomplish that goal. Your second focus should be the wheels and tires. The crank set is also very important. Aluminum rims and cranks are far preferable to steel.
Tires also have a central role in the second efficiency factor, road resistance. The best way to minimize friction where the rubber meets the road is to maintain higher air pressure in your tires. As long as you don’t exceed maximum design pressure (written on the sidewall), higher pressure will also mean fewer flats and more durability. Clincher rim walls must also withstand high tire pressures.
Bicycle tires don’t really need patterned tread unless you are riding in mud, snow, or sand. I have covered many miles on completely smooth tires. They actually have more traction than treaded tires. Since bicycles don’t normally achieve the conditions for hydroplaning, smooth tires are fine in wet weather as well.
Quality tires are a worthy investment, but even the best tires will fail. You will want to carry a good pump to keep your pressure up and the tools to fix a flat. At minimum that includes a patch kit with a dollar bill to boot a ripped tire. I carry a spare folding tire and two tubes on cross-country trips.
Know how to fix a flat with the tools you carry before you leave home.
The third efficiency factor is air resistance, determined by your movement relative to the moving air mass. A relative air speed of less than ten miles per hour is negligible, but the effect of increased speed is logarithmic. At sixty miles per hour (yes, I have), a shift in the cyclist’s posture can slow the bike as well as braking.
Recumbent bicycles generally have a better wind profile than uprights, but that hasn’t been enough incentive to get me onto one. I do use an aero bar to be able to get a good tuck, but the wind profile of a touring bike with panniers is pretty wide. We could theoretically fair our bikes to minimize eddies, but then we’d have to watch out for crosswinds.
Gearing is a complex efficiency factor relating the spin of the cyclist to the load of moving the bike, affected by each of the three factors we have just discussed. Most modern touring bikes have three chain rings and at least eight gears in the rear cluster. There are great advantages for a heavy bike to have a broad range of gears.
Wonderful advances are being made in bicycle transmissions, but this article presumes a conventional two-derailleur chain drive system. If you can afford a newer system that broadens your range of speeds, more power to you. If you want to develop the ultimate belt drive system, please contact me for the design.
My personal preference is friction shifting, as opposed to index – one gear per click. I use old thumbies and put bar end shifters on friend’s bikes. I spend less time worrying about cable tension adjustment. Your bike co-op probably has a supply of friction shifters, which used to be standard. They are simple and hard to break.
Three excellent retro friction shifter options.
If you prefer to keep indexed shifters, learn to use your barrel adjusters. A typical type is shown right. There are many styles. The cable passes through the bolt, which pushes the housing when backed out, tightening the cable. If the chain pulls toward the big gear, loosen the cable; toward the small, tighten. Make minor adjustments and test your work. Always set the lock nut, black in this photo, to hold the adjustment you’ve made.
While we’re on the topic of gears, Please learn to understand the limiters, two on each derailleur, which prevent over-shifting, where the chain slips off the gear. Usually a quarter turn is all the adjustment you’ll need.
The stability of a bicycle is affected by distribution of weight, ideally centered at the hub line, an imaginary line between the centers of the wheels. The higher weight is carried, the less stable the ride. This is one reason why I avoid carrying anything more than clothing on my body. Comfort
is another equally important reason. I even empty my pockets into my bags for long rides. I won’t wear a backpack on a bike.
The camelback seems like a good invention. I’m still trying to figure out how to mount one on my handlebars. I rode with a recumbent rider who carried one on the back of her seat. That made sense, but I cannot justify putting weight onto my back while riding. It would get sweaty and uncomfortable. For now, four water bottles suffice, with extra bladders in the panniers for desert crossings. It can be a long way between potable water on some routes.
Low rider racks carry panniers close to that hub line. These should be your primary packs. Water, a pump and other tools can be attached to the frame. Rack top bags and cross-bags increase capacity and accessibility. If you carry children, animals, or large items a trailer might be practical. Trailers that mount at the hub line are
more functional than those that attach to the seat post.
Waterproof panniers are worth the extra expense. You want bags that will cling to the bike while you ride over rough ground, but slip off easily when you transition from rolling to staying over night. Ortleib fills the bill.
Organize your stuff according to where you will use it. You will need access to some items while you ride (handlebar) or when you stop without dismounting (front pannier). Some items you will need only if you’re camping out (cross bag). I always have a neck wallet that gets off the bike with me every rest stop and one pannier that goes inside wherever I spend the night. Inside each pannier items are organized in zip lock compression bags.
Test rides are important for packing. Take your load up the steepest hill around to inspire reconsideration of what you really need. Elegant tools allow us to respond to diverse situations with minimal weight.
Children enjoy bicycling, especially with their parents. With some simple equipment, you can include children of any age on every ride. I rode 4500 miles in 2007 with a 12-yr-old girl,Tala, her 2-yr-old twin sisters, Grace & Willow (in
a trailer), and their mother, Michele Darr, one of the strong women who has graced my life.
An infant is generally happier and safer tied to mama. Use a snuggly or learn to tie a piece of fabric African style. It is unsafe to wear a helmet before the baby can hold its head up. Follow your intuition and be careful, but don’t let anybody hold you back.
From four months a child can ride in a seat built for that purpose. Get the kind
that mounts between the arms of the cyclist. I am not a fan of seats that mount behind the cyclist. They are unstable, especially when loading and unloading and make communication with your child more challenging.
Kid trailers are good from four months to four years and handy for other cargo for years after your child has grown. Look for a hitch that mounts below the left dropout of your rear wheel and stays on the bicycle. See if you can get another hitch for the other parent’s bike as well. Cargo bikes are good for kids.
Most inexpensive kid trailers are safe and relatively strong. The weak point is usually the hubs. I found I needed to repack the bearings every time we rode in the rain. Eventually the canvass floor will tear through and can be replaced with a piece of thin plywood or acrylic. We had to beef up the straps to hold in Grace when she started channeling Houdini on a Texas freeway.
Children like to ride their own bicycles. While they may also enjoy a trike, they should never need training wheels. The first bicycle, before the age of two, should have no crank arms. Lower the saddle, so your child can run over the bike and sit to coast. When you put the cranks and pedals back on, the child will know how to balance and pedaling will be a manageable challenge.
Early ventures into traffic should be completely controlled by the adult. My daughter, Lucy, learned to ride on the back of a tandem with a kid stoker kit. By the time she mastered her solo bike, she already knew the rules of the road, the feel of speed, and the routines of shifting. She gets around by bicycle to this day.
German engineers have come up with an elegant tool that attaches the front wheel of your child’s bike to the rear wheel of yours with a Bob-style hitch. This gives the option of attaching any bicycle whose rider has proven unprepared for safe riding in traffic, then detaching when you are in safer territory, better than a Tag-along.
As kids learn how to ride safely, let them go out in front of you. From the rear, the adult can see the child, and the child can better hear the adult. Agree in advance on route and a few simple commands, including “pull over.”
Prep Your Spin
Do you worry that your body can’t hold up to the work of riding across country? Later we’ll get to avoiding and treating painful injuries, but here is a simple 20-hour exercise that will completely prepare you for the task. Cycling shouldn’t hurt.
Select a safe bicycling route around your home that is
relatively flat and long enough that riding it repeatedly won’t bore you to tears. You could perform this exercise on rollers indoors if staring at the walls for hours doesn’t make you batty.
The first time you ride the route, keep your bike in the lowest possible gears combination (chain closest to the bike). Spin your cranks as fast as you possibly can as you ride around for two hours, and then take a break. Most people will be able to spin at least 100 rpms. A metronome can measure your rpm in bpm on either foot.
Always drink lots of water when you exercise. You should consume at least 32 oz of pure water during each two hour round, in addition to more before and after. Consume some food, mostly fresh plants, between rounds, balancing electrolytes and complex carbs. Let your muscles rest for half an hour and stretch to avoid developing aches and pains.
You may choose to do only one round per day. That’s fine, as long as you spin for at least two hours and care for yourself between rounds. I’ve done as many as five rounds in one day without ill effect, but usually settle for three or four. I cannot stress enough the importance of drinking, eating, stretching, and resting.
Next time around the course, you will shift up one gear on the rear. Keep your spin rate just as fast as before for two full hours before you take a break. For the third round, you will shift up to the second gear, front and rear. This will be a bit more of a jump in resistance, so pay extra attention to keeping your spin rate up. It may help to listen to fast paced music. Don’t allow yourself to drop below 80 rpms, but you can’t spin too fast. Spinning prevents injury, especially around the knees.
By now you understand the pattern. Shift up one notch. Spin fast for two hours. Rest.
There is no need to hit every possible gear combination on the way up, but you will want to repeat the pattern for at least ten rounds. While you’re building body strength, you will be familiarizing yourself with your bike’s transmission.
While your derailleurs should be adjusted to enable you to shift easily into every possible gear combination, there are some combinations you won’t use. Experienced cyclists tend to avoid the crossover positions,
moving the chain evenly away from the frame as they shift higher.
In small crossover, with the chain engaging the smallest gears front and rear, the chain has the most slack
possible. The chain tensioner on your rear derailleur should keep it tight
enough to function, but the likelihood of skipping increases.
Alternately in large crossover, on biggest gears front and rear, the chain is as tight as it gets, putting maximum stress on the drive chain. If your chain is the appropriate length, the chain tensioner should stretch forward within an inch of the ultimate limit. If your chain is too short, shifting to large crossover can rip your derailleur off. If your chain is too long, take out as many links as needed to reach optimal performance. Measure 12 links = 1 foot, to insure the chain is not worn.
When you get yourself to the point where you can ride your flat course for two hours at your fastest spin rate in your highest gear, you are ready to cycle anywhere. The higher gears are faster, but only if you can maintain the spin rate. When it becomes too difficult to pedal quickly, shift down to maintain your spin rate. This will protect your knees from injury and is more efficient.
I’m still grateful to my friend, Zack, for demonstrating the importance of this concept to me. I was trudging up a hill in too high a gear, struggling with every stroke of the pedal. Zack came alongside and passed me by in his very lowest gear, singing the wicked witch’s theme from The Wizard of Oz.
I’ve always been a masher, proud of my powerful legs. But I have to admit that spinning in a low gear is more efficient than trudging. I’ve learned to check my tempo by humming a Souza march to myself. It gets you there more quickly and provides the aerobic exercise for which bicycles are famous without hurting the joints.
Cars kill. Because they create threats, laws have been written to regulate motor vehicles. It is to your advantage as a cyclist to fully understand these regulations, because that knowledge could save your life. In most places the laws and design of traffic systems don’t really fit bicycles. When everybody is on a bike, we won’t need the regulations. As long as we have to share the road with cars, enhance your survival by riding in a predictable manner.
Drivers are not bad people out to kill bikers. Some lack appropriate respect for cyclists, but most are victims of their technology. Sitting on cushions inside a climate-controlled box with simple controls using exploited oil to speed you through space is an inherently dulling process.
Contrast this to the bicyclist. We are in the open air with our senses heightened by exercise. Working up our speed opens the cheetah within, and our well-tuned machine responds quickly. The bike has a smaller profile and tighter turning radius, making it much more maneuverable. Use these advantages.
It is good to be seen by drivers. Festoon yourself with bright colors and flashing lights, so that even the distracted driver becomes aware of your presence. Redundant lights cover you when one fails. Exaggerate your size and speed to claim your right to the road. Do not cower invisibly on the far edge of the pavement.
As long as there is room for cars to safely pass you, hold your line within a few feet of the right edge, leaving yourself some room to veer right in an emergency. Do not weave in and out around obstacles; this is a recipe for disaster. Look ahead to see obstacles and ride straight toward a position safely to the left of it.
Anytime you must move to the left, look over your left shoulder to ascertain that you’re not veering into the path of a vehicle. Stick your left arm out as a signal to the vehicle you don’t see, because that’s always the one that gets you.
Statistics counter intuition as we determine the threats we must avoid. It is quite rare for highly visible cyclists who hold their line to be struck from behind, even on narrow roadways. Mostly we get hit when somebody is entering or leaving the flow of traffic, so pay attention to intersections and driveways.
Cyclists sometimes assume they are safer on the sidewalk, but this is not generally true. The sidewalk has to cross all the driveways and intersections, too, but drivers aren’t looking for a fast moving vehicle on the sidewalk, especially from the left. You are much less likely to get hit when cycling on the right side of the street.
Never ride against traffic. This reduces reaction time and increases the damages of any collision. It creates a serious potential hazard from the right turning car, looking for traffic to merge with as he slams into you head on.
The number one threat for cyclists following the rules is the right hook, when a motor vehicle turns into you or right in front of you. Watch for signals. Look into the eyes of the driver as you pull up to a red light, where the safest place to be is usually to the right and in front of the first car. Shout “Hello!” if you aren’t sure you’re seen. While you are in motion near an intersection, remain prepared to ditch your bike to the right.
It’s better to ride into a curb or even a wall than to be run over by a truck tire.
It is also too common to be hit by an opening door or a car pulling out of a parking space. Watch for the head of a driver in parked cars or telltale lights. Listen for engine noises. Pass by any parked cars with enough space that the door couldn’t hit you. Hold your line a safe distance out from the door zone.
Another cause of bike accidents is railroad tracks. If you approach tracks at an acute angle, your tire may slip into the crack. Besides putting you into a face plant and rendering you completely vulnerable to passing cars, this accident is likely to ruin your rim.
Avoid this mess by “squaring off,” crossing the tracks at a
right angle. Look over your left shoulder and wave your left arm as a signal
because you may need to swing out of the bike lane if the tracks cross it at an angle. Take the space you need to cross safely and watch for a second set of
tracks, sometimes at a different angle.
Momentum is Our Friend
The efficiency of bicycles is due to momentum. When you apply force to start mass rolling on wheels designed to minimize friction, there is a tendency for the mass to continue to move unless another force stops it. Although it takes more energy to get up a hill than to ride on the flat, going downhill requires even less energy. In fact, gravity will cause a mass to accelerate, building momentum for the next hill.
Competitive cyclists refer to interval practice, meaning riding a series of hills and learning to combine your energy with the forces of gravity and momentum to maximize your efficiency. Heavier bikes, like loaded touring bikes, have more mass and thus stronger momentum than racing bikes. I have outpaced lightweight carbon fiber bikes with my fully loaded steel tourist in the foothills of the Appalachians. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I’d been spinning eight hours a day since Oakland.
Here is my method for riding intervals. At the top of a long hill, I shift into my highest gear. I get into a wind tuck and let her rip. I feel safer moving further left when I’m moving rapidly, since there’s less difference between my speed and that of any following vehicle. There are generally fewer obstacles toward the center of the roadway.
Before I get to the bottom of the hill, I start pedaling as fast as I’m capable, so that as I start up the next hill, there is momentum in my spin as well as the general momentum of the bike. I keep spinning as long as I can keep it up, sometimes all the way over the hill.
If I must shift down before I top the hill, I momentarily back off the pressure of my spin, to avoid ripping my gears up. It only takes a moment for the chain to settle into a new position so I can spin the rest of the way up the hill. I don’t slow to a trudge, even if I have to dump gears quickly. I rarely drop one gear at a time when riding intervals. I can go from highest to lowest in five shifts, but I rarely use my very lowest gears, unless hauling a big load up a long, steep hill.
There is a point when I know I can power over the hill. Standing on the pedals allows me more leverage in a bit higher gear than I could handle seated. It takes experience to know where your personal limits are. Don’t exhaust yourself if you’ve still got a long day of riding ahead of you.
There is always another hill. Even in relatively flat country, you will feel variations in grade. Be ready to climb over and over all day long. Don’t let any hill defeat you before you climb. And never, never stop at the bottom of a hill. You earned that momentum. Use it!
Cycling in Weather
“What do you do when it rains?”
This question was frequently asked of Michele and I when we rode across the continent with her kids. We developed a standard reply.
“We get wet.”
Our bodies withstand moisture better than our bicycles do. The fact is, every time we rode in a heavy rain, I would spend extra time afterwards cleaning and oiling chains and cables, even repacking bearings, especially in the cheap trailer hubs.
Sometimes rain can be refreshing. I remember the first time I climbed Snoqualmie Pass on my bicycle. At the top I rode into a cloud and was covered in a light mist. It was the perfect salve after that lung-busting hill. I draped wet clothes across the bike so that they flapped in the wind as I rolled down the other side. By the time I got to the bottom, everything was dry.
Some clothing is more comfortable for a variety of weather. I splurge with Patagonia or REI and get a couple durable sets of base wear with features like gusseted crotch (no seams to sit on) and quick-dry spf 50+ fabric. In summer, the only rainwear I carry is a bike poncho. I find I need more protection from sun than from rain.
Cold is another matter. We are more easily injured when cold and the wind on a bike can be quite chilling. It’s important to protect extremities. All year round I wear a long visor with an absorbent sweatband over the tops of my ears. In summer, it defends me from sun; in winter from cold. All year it blocks glare of headlights.
I always wear fingerless gloves when I ride. Besides absorbing handlebar shock, they protect my vulnerable palms should I fall. When it’s cold, I slip Thinsulate glove liners under them. In really nasty weather, I have a pair of reflective over-mittens, which make my hand signals visible while keeping me warm.
The quickest way to stay warmer is to pull a clear shower cap, free in many motels, over my helmet. My helmet-mounted lights are still visible, but the breeze no longer comes through the vents. We lose the most heat from our heads.
I prefer shorts for long rides, but pull storm-front tights under them when it’s nasty. I have an insulated shirt and a water resistant jacket, both brightly colored, for foul weather. Seal Skinz Sox and a silk balaclava prepare me for anything.
I have ridden in snow, but it was the mushy Pacific NW variety, where the biggest concern is slush clogging the rear derailleur. If you need to ride regularly in snow and ice, please consider snow tires or even a tricycle.
We can endure some discomfort while riding, as long as we can be sure comfort is waiting for us. When I ride away from home, I keep a set of sweats and leather sole wool socks rolled in a bag inside my panniers for relaxation at the end of the day.
Cycling Shouldn’t Hurt, but Sometimes Does
There’s no reason to push yourself beyond comfort, if you can simply take enough time to get there the easy way. But most of us will at one time or another test our own personal limits. Theoretically, if you can stretch your boundaries without breaking anything, you emerge stronger. Here are some tips for dealing with pains.
Wrist pains often accompany straight handlebars. One solution is to switch to drop bars, where it’s easier to ride with your hands in a more natural position (palms facing each other). Unfortunately, this requires changing brake levers and usually shifters. There are lots of handlebar options, such as mustache bars, that work well.
A simpler solution is bar-ends or an aero bar, giving you a variety of hand positions. Inexpensive bar ends work well especially when climbing, while pricier aero bars give you an ideal wind tuck position. I use both, but my cockpit is weird.
If your hands are carrying too much of your weight while riding, they can get sore. Lifting the stem (not past the minimum insertion line) or replacing it with a longer stem, shorter reach, or more obtuse angle can sometimes help to get your hands in the right place. Most riders with experience like to have their back bent about 45°,
a position which maximizes the strength of the thigh muscles, but when you ride
a lot, you’ve got to change posture frequently.
In the short run, if your hands hurt or go numb, shift your hand positions, keeping weight off the ulnar nerve at the base of your thumb. Ride with one hand on the bar while shaking the other out. Sit up and ride with just a fingertip on the bar.
If your butt hurts, don’t sit so much. Remember the downhill riding position, head tucked and tail raised with elbows and knees bent, developed by the famous Scottish tourist, Aaron (or was it Erin?) McRochety. Pronounce that name with a Scottish accent until you get the joke. Laugh, but try the position if your tail is sore.
It’s also useful to get out of the saddle when you’re riding intervals or sprinting across an intersection. Sometimes you can stand up and stay a couple gears higher than you would sitting, to power over a hill. It’s quicker and easier than shifting down and back up quickly, plus it relieves your TB (tired butt).
When you ride all day, a clean crotch is crucial for avoiding saddle sores. I’ve known cyclists who carry wet wipes, but I find daily washing of my shorts and myself sufficient. If you get a sore, treat it with zinc oxide before riding again. Prevent or treat hemorrhoids with aloe vera.
If your feet hurt, they are probably moving around too much. The ball of your foot should always be directly over the axel of the pedal. I use cleats to hold my foot in place and minimize rotating weight. I know a strong cyclist, Jesse Card, who has ridden across the USA twice with bear claw pedals and no clips, but he doesn’t let his feet slide around.
A little ankle flexing can be much less work than making the entire rotation with your thigh muscles. If your legs hurt in front of the knee, concentrate on perfecting your spin. The motion is a little like wiping something off your shoe. Raising the saddle might improve your stroke as well.
If you ever feel pain behind your knee, lower your saddle immediately. Don’t ignore this signal, because a saddle that is too high can cause a painful injury that takes a long time to heal. I speak from experience.
Sunburn is best avoided by covering your skin with loose cloth. Cotton is comfortable unless it gets soaked. UPF50 or silk is a great base layer year round. Many cyclists swear by marino wool. If you must expose naked skin, put on some zinc oxide, but don’t put it onto your forehead, where sweat might wash it into your eyes. A long brim visor and loose neck drape are good helmet accessories.
Muscle cramps can happen when you start exercising more, but they can be avoided. Drink lots of water and eat a well balanced diet. Be sure you get enough
potassium and magnesium (too much of the latter will cause diarrhea). Stretch frequently and rest at least half an hour for every two hours of spinning.
Intense exercise can also cause low blood sugar, so I make a
point of eating a meal at every break. Fruits are a good energy boost between breaks. I keep dates in my front bag, so I can pop a couple in my mouth whenever I feel low energy. You need a good balance of more complex carbs as well to avoid spike and crash cycles.
For long rides away from good sources of fresh food, I mix up special anti-bonk drinks. Sweat replacement is accomplished by mixing a little (3 Tbs per 20 oz) Lite
Salt (half potassium chloride) with Tang (high in Vitamin C and sugar). Mix some into every fourth bottle of pure water. Use the same bottle each time, because it will need special cleaning attention. Moldy water bottles are an experience to avoid.
There are endurance drink mixes available in some health food stores. I have found situations where using them was necessary, but they are nowhere near as good as fresh vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and beans. For camping away from civilization, I carry dehydrated potato flakes and powdered hummus, because they don’t require cooking and they meet immediate needs. Not eating while biking is very dangerous!
After a long ride, you are bound to be a bit sore. Keep stretching regularly to avoid losing flexibility. Warm bathes, massage, menthol, eucalyptus, and arnica are the best treatments I know for general muscle pain. Sore skin is best treated with fresh, pure Aloe Vera. If you are planning a very long trip, try to work in at least one day off per week for such special luxuries.
If anyone in your group has serious aches and pains, it can be very worthwhile to find a host who is a chiropractor or massage therapist. If you’re into prevention, try recruiting such a specialist to ride with you.
Early mornings are precious pedaling time. I strongly recommend you get into the
habit of waking at first light and hitting the road by sunrise at the latest. A friendly sheepherder from Two Dot, Montana taught Bike4Peace 2006 to appreciate
a hearty bowl of oatmeal with a dollop of peanut butter for breakfast.
Plan your days in advance so that you have rest stops with food every 20-25 miles. You can space them farther on a downhill and closer on the uphill. For the sake of planning, it is also good to know that when you’re riding in the west, the wind will blow upstream in the morning and downstream in the afternoon. It is very uncomfortable to climb a steep hill into the wind with the afternoon sun beating on your back.
Short, frequent rest breaks do not serve your body well. It is better to spin for two hours and then stop for at least half an hour. If you must stop, always try to do it at the top of a hill, where it will be easier to get rolling again. It’s also wise to stop only in shade, since you can’t cool down much with the sun shining on you. The air conditioning on your bike only works if you keep pedaling and drinking water. Ironically, in winter the heater also depends upon pedaling.
I find it easier to ride without a set schedule, but this makes it tougher on your support hosts. They like to know precisely when you will be there, so they can have everything ready for you. Cell phones make this process easier, but it’s challenging to reschedule a potluck at the last minute because somebody had a series of flat tires.
There is a lot to be said for maintaining flexibility and packing what you need for any possible situation. Sometimes a route that looked easy on paper turns out to be a whole lot tougher. Sometimes you make a wrong turn. It’s nice to be able to set up camp when you need to sleep and sort it out by morning. This flexibility is one reason I don’t like motorized support vehicles. Harder to stealth camp with a van. Hiker-biker campgrounds, a great deal on the west coast, don’t allow any motor vehicles.
In the final analysis, the slowest member of the group sets your pace. You can support each other by carrying one another’s load, or sharing things and mailing redundant gear home. The sweep rider often becomes a coach, encouraging the weaker rider to find unknown reservoirs within and utilize that power as efficiently as possible.
Riding in Groups
Most of the time groups of cyclists will line up single file. When traffic allows, riding side by side gives us a chance to chat, but those opportunities are relatively rare. Cyclists should have an agreement how they will fall quickly back into a line.
The most important positions are point and sweep.
The cyclist on point, at the front of the pack, should have full awareness of the route and the ability to maintain a healthy pace. It is much easier to follow a cyclist who spins steadily than one who alternates spinning and coasting. Neither the fastest nor the slowest is usually a good point rider. Generally, you are safer with at least 3 or 4 bikes close together.
The most experienced cyclist belongs at the back of the group in the sweep position. Ideally this person has tools and the skills to use them, an awareness of first aid, and preparation to deal with any problem that might come up. Unless Ron Toppi is behind me, this is my preferred position. (Ron, “the gear whisperer,” started Bike4Peace and taught me a lot. He has bicycled across the USA three times and supported many cyclists.)
Riding closely behind another cyclist is a sign of trust. Trust must be based in good communication. A draft line is the most efficient way for a group of cyclists to move. Even the cyclist on point has an easier
time because the entire group develops an aerodynamic flow. On the other hand, it’s more than disconcerting to slam into the bike ahead of you when it
Experienced cyclists have built a language for warning about obstacles. Simple signals, like pointing down at glass on the pavement, mix with warning calls like “car back,” warning a car is approaching from behind the group, or “ped up,” meaning pedestrians are walking in front of the group. You may learn the language or make up your own, but be sure the people in your group all know what you mean.
In my opinion the ideal size of a cross country cycling group is eight bikers. That’s a big enough group to be a “critical mass” ride in any small town, but small enough to maintain complex relationships. There is great strength in a unified group of diverse individuals, when you communicate your mutual appreciation.
Where to Stay
True vagabond travelers will enjoy stealth camping. It’s fun to pull off the side of the road in a public right-of-way (Watch for railroad tracks and high tension power lines, as well as highway intersections and parks). You can go from highly visible to invisible by pulling on a black hoodie and throwing a tarp over the bike. Low profile tents are
available and a few trees or shrubbery will provide all the cover you need.
Following the directions for daily massage on the bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap will insure cleanliness and you can manage this in a tent, optionally heating water on a fire or alcohol stove, which you can build from a beer can. That said, it’s awfully nice to have a daily shower and occasionally soak in a hot tub.
Warm Showers is a web tool for connecting touring cyclists with hosts. Couch Surfing is a more extensive network open to all kinds of travelers. If you plan your route and contact potential hosts in advance, you may find churches or nonprofits sympathetic
with your cause who will host a potluck and introduce riders to potential hosts.
Although all three cross-country rides I’ve made have included some motel stays and restaurant meals, I consider these almost as much of a failure as accepting a ride in a pick-up to stay on schedule. When I relax and quit trying to control every feature of the ride, I find miracles happen. Tala & I regularly sang “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.”
When traveling with twin babies in cloth diapers, we visited a lot of coin-op laundries, but Bike4Peace 2010 developed a better method for clothes washing. Every time I showered on that trip, I got in with my riding clothes on, scrubbed them along with my body, and wrung them out before toweling off.
I carried two sets of riding clothes on that trip. The set I wasn’t wearing were always hanging in a mesh bag, along with my camp towel, outside my left front pannier, where they got dry enough to wear the next day. I’ve met hardcore cyclists who just put on wet clothes every morning. Others just combine their clothes into the laundry of a host.
There are people everywhere who prefer low consumption lifestyles to fighting and exploiting limited resources. I look forward to discussions with these folks. Bike4Peace has taught me more respect for the common folk you never see on TV. The USA is full of kind, generous, and resourceful people.
We have often found host organizations, including local Green Party chapters, which are interested in learning more about our ride and its reasons. One Lutheran minister invited us to deliver the homily to his congregation, even knowing that our group included an atheist, an agnostic, and a heathen. When possible, it seems preferable to have an interactive discussion, such as happens spontaneously at a potluck.
We came up with an ideal format for facilitated discussions. First we allow each person an opportunity to positively share their vision of an ideal world, then ask for a discussion of the obstacles to living in this vision, encouraging explorations of our own
complicity in our problems. How do we support the problems?
For the last third of the meeting, we ask each participant commit to make personal changes that will lead toward the world in which they want to live. When they state these commitments witnessed by their community, they are likely to find support to follow through. The process can be inspiring.
Many Bike4Peace hosts have realized that if some people can
cycle across the continent, nearly everybody can cycle across town. Some will choose to ride farther with the group. In my opinion, B4P must be open to voluntary participation by everyone. Respect for autonomy inspires honest commitment.
Bicycles are the appropriate transformation tools for our generation. We’ve become dependent upon industrial exploitation that simply cannot continue.
I’ve known some competitive cyclists and admire their dedication to the sport. I can relate to the joy of doing your very best, but I shy away from situations that make me a winner by making somebody else lose. I rejected high school athletics for the same reason. The collaboration of band was much more attractive to me.
Collaboration is part of the appeal of Bike4Peace. We’re not racing to see who can finish first. We each pull our own loads, but we help each other when we can. I will never forget the warm feeling that filled me when, as I struggled up a particularly difficult hill, Ron reached from his bicycle to put a hand on my back. It is amazing how much that touch can help.
Bike4Peace is about freedom from the oil addiction. More than half of American workers spend more than half of their working hours earning the expenses of their cars. Breaking free of the rat race means taking the time to enjoy traveling under your own power. Exercise builds strong bodies and peace is good for your heart.