What Is Bicycle Touring?

It had been a spectacular day of sunshine sprinkled with thunderstorms as only the Colorado Rocky Mountains can provide. With our eight-year-old daughter Jen and our two-year-old son Jim we were three weeks into what was to become a bicycle tour across America in midsummer of our nation’s 200th year. But all we knew at the time was that we were well over a mile high in the middle of a range of mountains that had historically been a barrier to westward movement. We were heading east and the Rockies were proving to be a challenge.

The day delighted us as we climbed the last summit onto what seemed the top of the world. We saw a huge high basin filled with Blue Mesa Reservoir, the largest body of water in Colorado, which promised us almost level miles and no summits for the rest of the day.

Along the way people told us the pedaling would be fairly easy to Gunnison and beyond to the foot of Monarch Pass, the high point of our tour at 11,312 feet.

Jen pedaled her small bike ahead of us, dropping back occasion ally to work with Jim who was trying to learn the alphabet from his backward view of the world in the trailer behind Don’s bike. Jen had mastered the mountains up to that point and was feeling pretty good about herself and her world that summer. She was also falling in love with Colorado. None of us knew it at the time but Colorado was to be our home some four years down the road.

That night in Gunnison we enjoyed the companionship of other campers and some bicyclists in a spot some where on a staircase to the stars. We sat around the campfire — something we didn’t get to enjoy very often — talking, laughing, doing what strangers do when drawn together around that primitive pivot point at the end of a satisfying day.

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The Many Faces of Bicycle Touring

(above) Bicycle touring is a shared social experience, requiring cooperation and mutual give-and-take. These members of the Pensacola Freewheelers ride in ‘tandem” in the Pensacola Beach area. One of the real attractions of bicycle touring is that everyone can do — together. Here a Rhode Island family takes time out for equipment adjustment during a group ride across Iowa. Bicycle camping is just another dimension of bicycle touring in which cyclists like these Pensacola Freewheelers can relax and enjoy each other’s company after a hard day’s ride.

(above) Bicycle touring can be a collective celebration, as it’s in the annual across-Iowa bike ride where the social dimension of the ride is as important as anything. Bicycle touring is travel, liberation, and freedom. It’s an opportunity to explore, as in the case of these tourists cycling the TransAmerica Trail outside Breckenridge, Colorado.

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Some of our visitors talked with the children, questioning them about the trip and how they were getting along. At one point a lady looked down at little Jim, only a few blinks away from sleep, and asked him somewhat sadly, “I’ll bet you would rather be at home in your own bed right now, wouldn’t you? Where is your home, honey?”

Jim’s eyes didn’t waver at all as he looked up at her and said, “Right here.”

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Being at home on your wheels wherever you happen to be is what bicycle touring is all about. It’s traveling not just to go somewhere but to be completely involved in the going itself. We think of bicycle touring as more than a sport; it’s a way of life that is at once simple yet sophisticated, easy yet demanding, with just the right combination of mental freedom and physical challenge — whether that is in climbing a mountain or patching a tire.

Bicycling long distances for the fun of it’s an idea that is just now finding its way through the blur that is most of our lives. There have been more bicycles sold in the United States since 1970 than automobiles, which is amazing in a nation considered to be the most motorized in the world. With almost 100 mil lion bicycles in our garages and on the roads, bicycling is the most popular participation sport in the country, more popular than fishing or camping. Yet the majority of bicycle owners are shocked at the idea of riding more than a few miles.

Many of us got our first bicycle under the Christmas tree with all the other toys, and were then turned loose at an early age, before we knew the rules of the road. Is that partly why we doubt that the bicycle could seriously com pare with the automobile when it comes to getting around?

The bicycle is the most efficient means of movement known — more efficient even than a dolphin sliding through the ocean — yet we continually use two ions of nonrenewable energy- consuming metal to move ourselves — 80 percent of the time — less than eight miles from home. Of course, time is the real factor. “Lack” of it, a desire to “save” it, not wanting to “waste” it; all of those ideas keep us locked in our in efficient, expensive, smelly gas-consuming cars. To “save” time the average American devotes almost four hours a day to the automobile: driving in it, parking it, searching for it, working to pay for it and gas, insurance, taxes, tickets and cleaning. We join health spas and clubs, buy exercise machines and stress our systems with rigid diets to lose the excess weight we otherwise could simply by regularly using our bicycles as a means of transportation.

But more than saving energy, resources, time and money, bicycling offers a whole new way of looking at the world. You see, hear, smell and feel things on a bicycle that we sometimes think are far gone in this complex, industrial fast-action world of ours. The bicycle is a means of gaining control over the speed of your life, of slowing it down a little. The gas crisis is irrelevant to the bicycle tourer and commuter. We dream of being free of the hectic pace in our lives, free of much that civilization has come to mean. The bicycle offers an exciting alternative if we just see it for what it is; an inexpensive, unencumbered, exciting alternative with unlimited travel potential.

Bicycle touring extends beyond the quick ride to the grocery store or the daily ride to work and back. It. is using the bicycle to travel many miles for recreation. If we master the idea of daily, consistent use of the bicycle, it’s only a step further to using it for weekend and vacation travel. Accustomed to postponing recreational fun until we arrive somewhere else, the bicycle vacation begins the minute you mount up and leave home. Its range is unlimited and just about anyone can ride. Don’t we mean anyone “young enough”? No, anyone physically able to can and should ride a bike since it also improves physical conditioning and health. People in their seventies regularly tour on bicycles; so do children big enough to reach the pedals (and others who aren’t but go along for the ride). Many middle- aged people discover a whole new life while bicycle touring, proving that life begins on two wheels if not at 40.

Bicycle touring can be as simple or as complicated as you wish to make it. You can begin by cleaning, oiling and pumping up that single- or 3-speed in your garage or you can go down to the local bike shop and invest from $200 to $1,000 to get started. You can stay in the very best hotels or in budget motels, or you can camp out; you can fly first- class with your bike to a touring place or you can leave from your front yard and perhaps for the first time really see the region where you live. You can travel alone, sign up on a tour with like- minded strangers or take your family along for anywhere from one day to all year.

Jack and Alice Winner use their bicycles in a variety of ways. Jack com mutes 10 miles a day to work and Alice rides to the local school district office where she is a nurse. They, with their two children, join a local bicycle club for weekend rides of up to 50 miles on Saturdays with an occasional camp-out at a distant beachside park. They travel with the children two weeks each summer during their vacation. Last year they toured Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons; the year before they traveled back East to visit grand parents and tour the Pennsylvania covered-bridge country and Philadelphia. Next year in autumn they plan to leave the children with grandma while they vacation with a bicycle-tour group among the inns of Vermont.

Then there is Ian Hibell. When last seen he was biking across the Amazon basin. In 16 years he has toured over 100 thousand miles. (Read about him in Bicycling magazine; November 1973, September 1974 and December 1976.) He was the first to travel by bicycle from the tip of South America up to Alaska, the first and only one to bicycle from the Arctic Circle in Norway to the southern most tip of Africa. At 44 he is going strong.

Dervla Murphy, a middle-aged nurse from Ireland, decided to do some thing different for awhile and set out alone on a single-speed bicycle to ride across Europe in the blizzard of 1964 through Afghanistan and on to India. You can read about her experiences in her book, Full Tilt.

This guide isn’t about long-distance bicycle tourers, nor is it about average people who regularly spend days and weeks touring their neighborhoods and the country on bicycles. This guide is about you and your first bicycle tour, the most exciting one of all. We wrote it to encourage and help you to use your bicycle for days at a time to take you farther and farther from your home into the fascinating world of bicycle touring. If you are already riding and touring, we think you will find in these pages considerable help in filling gaps, answering questions and getting ideas to help you enjoy touring even more.

We use a step-by-step approach based on our own touring experiences, teaching bicycling safety and leading tours. As much as we would like to talk only about the aesthetics of touring it self, we must spend a seemingly disproportionate amount of space on things like frame dimensions, cadence and derailleur maintenance. If we didn’t, you would not need this guide at all; it’s the mundane subjects such as choosing gears, getting a proper fit on your bike, and learning how to care for it that won’t only get you out to where you can find your own aesthetics but will keep you there long enough to enjoy them.

In the following Sections we take you from choosing a touring bicycle through fitting it properly and learning to ride efficiently and smoothly, to choosing the best auxiliary equipment for your needs. We discuss clothing best suited to touring and how to carry everything on the bicycle safely. We talk about things you need to know for planning your tours and about camping by bicycle as an option we hope you will try, to extend your range and enjoyment. We take you through a typical touring day and discuss group touring, a subject of interest to many. The last Sections on physical conditioning, food and maintenance are essential to every one for successful touring.

As with any subject worth learning, it’s worth learning well. Throughout the guide we stress the need for hands-on experience; read with your bicycle nearby so notice what we are talking about. Perform the various procedures, practice things at home, learn the terminology and you will enhance the hours you spend on the road.

This approach to bicycle touring is one way, our way, but it’s not the only way. You will meet, talk with and read others who don’t see things as we do, who have opposing ideas about equipment, technique, even touring itself. Bicycling is a strong opinion-producing sport, perhaps because the people who do it care about it very much. We would have it no other way. We present to you our ideas, knowledge, experience and reasoning; it’s up to you to take what meets your needs and make it part of your own set of values and knowledge.

The most important factor in any tour had to be omitted from this guide because we know nothing about it — that is your own mental attitude. It will make or break a tour quicker than any amount of mechanical difficulties or bad weather. If you are the proverbial pessimist who sees a half-full glass of water as half-empty, it might be good to consider packing an optimist along on your tour. But you must be used to seeing the world that way so maybe it works for you. Tim tends toward the pessimistic direction while Don pulls hard the other way; we seem to manage well somewhere between the two extremes on tour.

But something you really can’t do well without is flexibility. Being able to adapt to whatever comes along is partly the result of preparation and skill development, but for some it’s just a way of life. Adaptability will see you farther down the road than anything else you can pack in your panniers. The rest of what lies between the covers of this guide will only add to your preparation, strengthen your skills and we hope, inspire you to begin.

Use this guide as a guide in learning about and planning for touring. It should help you to think about things you would otherwise have forgotten, to avoid some problems you would other wise have encountered and to gain more fun out of your touring life than if you had not read it. Most of all we hope it gets you out on your bicycle seeing what there is to see with the least possible amount of trouble and a maximum of joy.

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