Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bike Touring

Even though my first bike tour – when I was fourteen – was pretty much a rainfest on the Oregon Coast, my second tour was an equally damp outing in the San Juan Islands a year later (at an age where it’s pretty easy to get jaded/disillusioned quickly!) I’ve had a lifelong fondness for this awesome mode of travel, and was fortunate enough to find a partner in Ash who shared my enthusiasm for it (she took the unconventional way home from college after graduation:  she rode her bike home to Washington from Yale in Connecticut).   

I’ve since ridden the OR coast (in blazing heat that time), one big, post-graduation trip that took in England, Scotland, Wales, Holland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, former Yugoslavia, and Greece; and after a bit of a hiatus I did a trip to Baja, and once I met Ash we have been on a pretty consistent schedule of at least one or two tours per year and have been to Norway, Bulgaria, Mexico’s Copper Canyon and Jalisco, central Idaho,  Peru’s Highlands, Western and Eastern Cuba, France’s Pyrennees, Italy, Colorado, Montana, Jellystone/Tetons/Beartooths, and a few in Utah as well (I wrote an article for Utah Cycling about last summer’s CO sojourn that just came out here: http://www.cyclingutah.com/june/Cycling-Utah-June-2013-Issue-counter.html - it’s near the end of the issue, which for some reason is having a tough time loading on my machine…).  And on Thursday I’ll be starting my first Asian bike tour, riding effectively 500km from Seoul, Korea to Pusan. 

Ash and I invariably remark on every tour we do:  “Why aren’t more people into this?”  When I did my Big Tour around Europe fresh out of college I thought “man, when people find out how awesome this is, this activity is going to catch on like mad!”

And truth be told that it sort of has along with the meteoric rise in the popularity of road riding, though this growth has come via trips that are done in a bit more controlled manner with people doing guided and/or supported, gear-free trips.  Those are fine, but it always seems like those trips sort of miss out on the what is the essence of being on your bike: the freedom to just go where you will and let the events, weather, accomodations, people, and nutty experiences just sorta flow your way.  I think that one reason that people are sort of turned off by bike touring is that the concept of carrying weight on your bike – when you’re accustomed to zipping along on your 16 lb bike on 23c tires – is daunting.  But the truth is that when you’re on a bike tour the only thing you are doing is riding your bike  - or not – and whether you go 50 miles on a “loaded” rig or 70 miles on a speedster, it doesn’t really matter; you’re just riding along and putting out the same amount of energy regardless of your speed.  And the truth is that you don’t need much:  a handlebar bag, rack, and rear panniers is all that we ever use to tote our gear, and we have definitely done our share of mowing unloaded cyclists down on climbs, so it’s not actually all that slow. 
And you get to really appreciate scenery like this!

And it’s cheap; if you bring camping gear it pretty much costs food (though admittedly we invariably become The Great Metabolizers after a few days, so the food bill goes up!).  And, of course, the great beauty is that for exercise nutcakes like us, the vacation and the fitness are pretty much one and the same. 
Ash (little yellow dot on this low-rez photo) near the top of 12,000 foot Cottonwood pass in Colorado
When I was in Norway I had the unusual experience of driving a lot of roads (finding rivers to kayak) and then riding the same roads a couple of weeks later.  I was amazed at how I pretty much had the life sucked out of me in the car and through lidded eyes and a dulled brain I missed a lot/most of what was going on outside, and how stoked I was to be on the bike later on the very same roads. 

And the opportunities to meet locals en route is remarkable. I don’t know if it’s the fact that touring cyclists are somewhat rare, or they are more vulnerable and therefore approachable, or there’s simply no metallic coccoon around them, but the ability to meet and chat with local folks when on a bike tour is unmatched by any other mode of travel.    A lot of people go to different places/countries to see “things” – natural, ruined, magnificent, etc, and that’s great – but driving and even using public transportation sometimes it’s easy to be separated from locals, But when you show up in a French boulangerie covered in sweat and dust and enthusiastically gobble down some amazing pastries and wash them down with water coming out of the town square spigot; well, for some reason that kind of stuff makes it pretty easy to engage with people. 
An awesome Cuban painter

Some great folks in Paonia

A roadside stand proprietor in Cuba

some folks we stayed with in Cuba

And when else do you get to hang out with barn animals?

That said, Bulgaria’s people, perhaps still affected by the the post-Cold War scene, did not really engage with us much, and I’ll be curious to see if the Koreans (who seem to be known for their industriousness and stoicism) will be similar.  And for sure, in the case of Bulgaria and in Korea the complete and utter lack of any kind of language communication can present a bit of a barrier (in addition, to – I anticipate – a fair bit of consternation as to where to go, what to eat, etc).   And no doubt, you are at the mercy of the weather: wind (I rode for a week down the Yugoslav coastline into the Bora winds), rain (it poured incessantly on Ash after I had to leave her in Norway), heat (I nearly expired on the south coast of Cuba), and cold (I did a 20 mile descent out of the Dinaric Alps with the temp well-below freezing) can be challenging, but part of the fun is dealing with the unforseen challenges that invariably arise. 

Sand is a good challenge as well!
I don’t necessarily feel compelled to “promote” things like mountain biking, backcountry skiing, kayaking, etc because there are already plenty of people doing those activities and the resources are a bit limited.  But Ash and I feel like EVERYONE should bike tour, and the “resource” is truly infinite.  I’m stoked to get back on the steed in a new land.  

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