4 Misconceptions about Bicycle Touring

Whenever Debbie and I talk to someone about our long-distance bicycle tours, we hear some interesting reactions. You did what? How did you do that? That’s too much work. That’s about the last thing I would want to do on my honeymoon. That must have been so awesome. You must see some interesting people and places.

I think some of those reactions reflect some misconceptions about bicycle touring–or at least about the type of bicycle tours we’ve done. I’ve narrowed those misunderstandings down to four.

1. Bicycle touring must require training. Not really. A tour is not a race. There’s time to log plenty of miles at whatever speed you are capable of and comfortable with. On our tours, pre-trip training was deferred until early in the trip itself. If you don’t have the time to train before embarking, you can do it on the first few weeks of your tour. But don’t forgo training if you can fit it in. Pre-trip training will toughen up your rear-end, which will help prevent saddle sores that could jeopardize completing your trip.

2. You must need to be athletic to succeed on a long-distance tour. Nope! Tourists come in all different shapes and sizes. Physical endurance is not difficult to develop for those who have the will to complete the journey. The goal is not to finish in record time, in which case only the svelte and athletic types would “win.” Those who merely finish are winners. And you’ll be rewarded by finding yourself in better condition than when you started. Perseverance definitely trumps athletic prowess on a bicycle tour.

3. You must meet so many interesting people. This is perhaps the most common misconception I’ve heard. Yes, you will meet some interesting people, and people will be more inclined to engage with you once they learn what you’re doing. But you’ll also spend countless hours in the saddle, unable to communicate effectively with even your travel mate(s). Off-bike chores geared toward memorializing the entire trip and preparing for the next day also chew up time. Most tourists will allocate much of their time to reaching their destination. And since time is money, most will want to do so efficiently. That leaves less time to socialize.

Just passing through

Just passing through

4. You must see so many interesting places. Yes and no! As mentioned above, riding and off-bike chores will compete for time. Security concerns about leaving bicycles unattended and out of sight also influence the extent to which you’ll wander far from them. Taking in an attraction along the way is not as straightforward as one might think. Thankfully, you see many interesting places while riding. It’s a perspective that is well worth the trip, even though you’ll bypass some famous sites and “skim the surface” along the way.

When fantasy becomes reality and you take to the road, adjusting your expectations to take into account the above misconceptions about bicycle touring will put you in a better position to make the most of your trip.

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Use It or Lose It!

On a recent trip to the roller rink, Debbie and I faced a stark awakening. It had been years since we’d attempted this feat. It showed. We acted as props for one another as we crept along the outer edge of the rink. With Debbie on one side and the wall on the other, I managed to stay on my wobbly legs and avoid any violent topples to the hard surface below me. Two are better yet again!

Our escapade teaches an interesting lesson. Our bodies had forgotten what roller skating was like. It really is a clever act–to balance on free spinning wheels on a flat, smooth surface, with others whizzing by at breakneck speed. We used muscles that had forgotten the sensation. And the more we tried to stay upright, the tenser those muscles became. Tense muscles aren’t what you need to navigate a roller rink. You need to relax so you can respond reflexively.

Our confidence had been shattered–at least once we stepped onto the rink. Our proficiency of years ago had provided plenty of confidence en route to the rink. But when you go years without exercising a skill, you begin to lose it. Your body and mind need to be reminded what it was like, perhaps even retrained. By the end of the night, we had become somewhat more relaxed. But we’ll need multiple visits to the rink to reclaim our skill.

The “use it or lose it” rule says that if you don’t use a particular skill or gift, you will eventually lose it. Although there’s Scriptural grounds for this, I don’t totally subscribe to the theory. For when you learn how to ride a bicycle, you don’t forget. It becomes ingrained in you. With each successful ride, you develop more confidence that you can do it anytime you so desire.

Maybe I need another lesson or two in humility to embrace this truth. And…well…maybe that’s why I’ve been meeting with limited success recently in a long-held passion of mine. The “use it or lose it” rule has met me in another endeavor.

In younger years, I played a lot of competitive chess. I became quite proficient and topped out as a chess expert, one who is rated between 2000 and 2200. That’s actually pretty good. A master has reached the 2200 level, a grandmaster, 2400.

My love for the game has kept me periodically engaged with “solitary chess” (where one plays both sides of the board), and occasionally reviewing games published in periodicals or playing some “speed chess” online. However, I’ve not competed in an over-the-board (OTB) tournament since 2002. Since the 1980s, I had played only sporadically.

Recently, I’ve entered a few OTB tournaments at a local club with stronger competition than I’d been accustomed to. While I like a challenge, I’ve experienced the same confidence reversal that Debbie and I had at the roller rink! My confidence crisis has manifested itself in several ways.

First, I’ve been more nervous than I would normally be for a chess game. I’ve always been nervous before a chess game and, to some degree, I expect it. It tells me I’m ready to play. But, having shaky hands feels awkward.

I’ve also been calculating moves too slowly. When you play in an OTB tournament, you are timed. If you use all of your allotted time, you immediately lose the game–regardless of whether you hold a winning position, or are getting crushed. It’s a harsh, but fair, reality. I’ve lost some recent games because I’ve poorly allocated my time, even though I’ve had better positions than the opponent. Sure, there’s rust to shake off after years away from the board. But, much of the slow play is excessive caution symptomatic of a lack of confidence.

My lagging confidence is also altering my perception. I’m not seeing my positions objectively. I’m assuming my higher-rated opponents have something up their sleeve. When  I review my games later, I see the positions more for what they were. And I had better chances than what I was telling myself over the board. Confidence is such an important aspect of a mental game like chess. And it’s difficult to accumulate any without experiencing some successes.

My game this week demonstrated these phenomena well. My opponent, a master, played an offbeat variation of an opening I was quite familiar with. On move six, he strayed from what I thought was the “book” move. Sure enough, several deep thinks later and I was in severe time trouble. Yet, I had developed a strong position. At a critical juncture, I was left with one minute to make 20 moves. I made some mistakes before losing on time.

After the game, my gracious opponent admitted that he probably shouldn’t deviate from the book on move six anymore based on how I handled it. He also showed me a crushing move I had missed in time trouble, a move I would not have missed with adequate time. Knowing how close I had been to a decisive win over a strong player is a “moral victory” that bolsters my confidence. I suspect my confidence will grow further as I reverse the effects of the “use it or lose it” rule.

Have you walked away from a long-time passion? Is there a skill you once mastered that you’ve not used for awhile? Consider rekindling your fire. Your mind will stay sharper and you will soon brim with self-confidence. Don’t find yourself on the wrong end of “use it or lose it.” You may regret it later. You’ll be playing catch up trying to reclaim past glory!

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Here’s the game described above. The opening is known as Alekhine’s Defense. On move 21, Nxd4 should win.

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Five Threats to Avoid when Bicycle Touring

Bicycle touring. It’s one of the best ways to experience new places while rising to new personal heights. To keep positive memories aloft, you’ll want to avoid these five downers. Although you can’t anticipate what lurks around the next bend, lessons learned by those who go before you can help minimize the effects of these frightening surprises.

1. Dogs. When you’re riding in the middle of the Washington desert, you’d really prefer them to be at the end of a leash. But when Debbie and I landed there in 2010, they were sprinting toward us at breakneck speed. Accompanying barks and growls sent chills down our spines. When you face three at once, that’s when a typical encounter becomes a fearful episode.

Lesson learned: If you’re going to carry pepper spray to ward off dogs, you might want to keep it close at hand. They won’t wait for you to retrieve it from deep within a pannier.

Ominous Sky
2. Threatening weather. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a blacker sky than on day one of our Mom-to-Mom tour in 2012. Thunder, lightning, and driving sheets of rain burst forth in late afternoon in Punta Gorda, Florida. We had cut short our pit stop at Wendy’s to travel farther. Thankfully, more shelter was just down the road–and just in time.

Several days later, outside of Jacksonville, lightning chased us on miles of service-less roads. We had experienced this same feeling along Tornado Alley on our coast-to-coast tour. The more we glanced over our shoulders at the ominous sky, the darker–and closer–it became.

Lesson learned: You can’t always outrun threatening weather. And, sooner or later, a storm will catch up with you. Pay attention to dark clouds. They can come with much electricity. Torrential rain can blind not only you, but the motorists who would otherwise try to avoid hitting you. Don’t forget to check The Weather Channel or Internet weather forecasts each day.

3. Pilfery. Webster calls it petty theft, but if you lose some necessary gear while you’re out in the middle of nowhere on a long tour, you’ll hardly consider the loss petty. And if someone vandalizes your bicycle, that serious insult could spoil the remainder of your tour.

Lesson learned: If you need to leave your bicycle unattended, use good judgment about where, or in whose care you entrust it. You need it to get home. Carry valuables with you at all times, particularly money and credit cards. Consider a locking system.

4. Traffic. A close encounter with a high-speed tractor-trailer on I-84 in Oregon was a wake-up call. In the Midwest, we wandered off route and landed on a beat-up, shoulder-less road filled with trucks. Another self-selected route down the homestretch led us to agitated motorists in bumper-to-bumper traffic, convincing us that our tour was ending just in time.

Lesson learned: This one’s pretty hard to avoid, but it remains one of the highest threats to bicycle tourists. After all, you will be sharing the road with motorized vehicles. Route selection is important. Rely on the advice of others who know area roads better than you do, but query them from the standpoint of bicycle travel not car travel.

Avoid metropolitan areas and superhighways. To minimize our navigational challenges, we entrusted our safety to Adventure Cycling Association’s maps. When in doubt, defer to the pros.

5. Campground visitors. You won’t want uninvited guests in your campground, particularly the big fury ones with sharp teeth. If you’ll be frequenting wilderness campgrounds, you might keep some bear spray close at hand. Conventional wisdom says to suspend food and other scented items from a tree branch well removed from your campsite. You may need to polish up on your knot-tying before venturing out.

Lesson learned: For non-prolific campers like us, there’s plenty of lessons yet to learn!

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Northern Tier or Atlantic Coast?

If you had an opportunity to go on a long-distance bicycle tour, where would you go? And which route would you take?

Coast-to-Coast RouteMuch to my surprise, I got that opportunity. When I left a job in 2010 and married Debbie, we cycled across America on our extended honeymoon. Two summers later, we bicycled from Florida to Maine on our Mom-to-Mom tour. We wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.

Mom-to-Mom RouteAdventure Cycling Association publishes maps specifically designed for bicycle tourists. They’ve taken much of the hard work out of navigation and local route selection to maximize your experience. You’ll need to decide what type of experience you’d like and what general areas you’d like to travel. Then, you’ll be left with a few options to choose from.

Debbie and I began our first tour in Oregon, following ACA’s Lewis and Clark Trail along the Columbia River valley. After two weeks, we merged with the Northern Tier route in Montana, which we followed for the remainder of our trek.

In 2012, we began in Naples, Florida, traveled across the State of Florida following part of ACA’s Florida Connector route, and then merged with the Atlantic Coast route until the final days of our tour in Maine.

I thought it might be useful to you, with Debbie’s help, to compare our tours. Below is some commentary on some major categories you might want to consider in your selection process. We then share our rankings of each on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 is best). This information will give you a flavor for what these routes have to offer.

1. Distance. The first determinant of your route selection will be its distance. How much time do you have available, and what speed do you anticipate traveling? Will you get bored with long distances, or does the challenge intrigue you? We had no clue how fast we would travel when we began our first trip. With only two months available for the tour, we traveled 3,500 miles in 63 days (including rest days), and received assistance from some friends and family for roughly 400 miles. Even so, we were a couple of days late returning. Our second tour was about 2,600 miles over 47 days.
Coast-to-coast: Debbie 5, Tim 5
Atlantic Coast: Debbie 4, Tim 4.

2. Terrain. Are you up for some climbing, or do you prefer flat straightaways? Our two routes had both. The Atlantic Coast tour was extremely flat until we arrived in Virginia, about halfway into our trip. The flat terrain made for an easy transition to a more strenuous daily physical schedule. On our coast-to-coast tour, we climbed more hills, and higher mountains. Tough first-week climbs in Oregon surprised us. Once on the Northern Tier, we enjoyed flat land for weeks. But don’t think the Atlantic Coast tour doesn’t have challenging hills. One steep ascent along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania sent us whimpering to an area motel.
Coast-to-coast: Debbie 5, Tim 5
Atlantic Coast: Debbie 5, Tim 4.

3. Traffic. There’s no doubt about it. The Atlantic Coast tour had much more traffic. After all, we were traveling through more densely populated regions, although that’s not to say that all of the cycling was in congested areas. Traffic hot spots were Florida’s Route A1A from the coast to Yulee at rush hour, narrow roads in Maryland, clogged traffic around Fredericksburg, Virginia, and jam-packed shoulder-less roads by Sebago Lake in Maine.
Coast-to-coast: Debbie 5, Tim 4
Atlantic Coast: Debbie 2, Tim 3.

4. Aesthetics. If you love grand vistas and wide open spaces, you’ll want to bicycle through the Rocky Mountains and the Plains States. If you prefer ocean, the Atlantic Coast will give you more of it, although not as much as the tour’s name would imply. There’s plenty of beauty on the Atlantic Coast tour, but I don’t think it compares with the coast-to-coast experience, which also included a visit to Niagara Falls. Throw in more beautiful sunsets, and the coast-to-coast aesthetics are clearly superior.
Coast-to-coast: Debbie 5, Tim 4
Atlantic Coast: Debbie 4, Tim 3.

5. Weather. Which do you prefer, tornados or hurricanes, mid-90s with humidity and torrential rain, or dry heat and a bit more moderate weather? Thankfully, we didn’t run into violent weather, although it was threatening us a few times. We’ll not let the actual weather we experienced on our tours influence our rankings, which we are basing on typical midsummer weather patterns. The Northern Tier will offer you much less humidity and cooler temperatures overall.
Coast-to-coast: Debbie 5, Tim 5
Atlantic Coast: Debbie 3, Tim 3.

6. Services. You’ll want to ask yourself which is better for you: many services or few? Depending upon your interests, you may prefer the adventure of remote areas, or the convenience of more active spots. We’ll consider services to be stores, motels, campgrounds, and bicycle shops. Our rankings are based on adequacy of services. Both routes had long stretches without various services, but the Atlantic Cost tour clearly offers more services. Yet, their motel accommodations are more expensive. If you prefer camping in the wild, you won’t find much of that on the Atlantic Coast tour.
Coast-to-coast: Debbie 4, Tim 3
Atlantic Coast: Debbie 5, Tim 4

7. Safety. This is a difficult category to rank because it is so subjective. We’ll take into account animals, humans, and traffic, and the extent to which any of them could have posed threats to us. Since we had no crises on either tour, we’re going to give you “impression votes” based on how we felt. Anecdotes from locals on crime or other incidents influence our votes. We heard reports of crime areas on both routes, which we sensed anyway as we traveled. Traffic alone tips the scale for me.
Coast-to-coast: Debbie 4, Tim 4
Atlantic Coast: Debbie 3, Tim 3

8. Other factors. If you’re like us, when you go on a bicycle tour, you want to see and experience new places. Our familiarity with portions of the Atlantic Coast region would work against it on this survey, but we’ll not penalize it in the scoring. You’ll want to factor into your decision which areas you haven’t seen yet–and which you’d like to see. Each route passed through regions with plenty of history. The Atlantic Coast had more history because of the relative age of its settling, and the density of its population. If you like history, consider traveling through the likes of St. Augustine, Williamsburg, Richmond, and Washington. A stop at Mount Vernon and cycling right up to the Lincoln Memorial will please any history buff. And if you like to explore major cities, there are more side trips on the Atlantic Coast route to major cities like Savannah, Charleston, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Major cities on our coast-to-coast tour were Portland, Oregon, Minneapolis, Cleveland, and Buffalo. There are also cultural differences. You can sense the Southern culture versus the more metropolitan areas further north on the Atlantic Coast tour. The Northern Tier route lets you experience the West. It also has its own built in history lesson along the Erie Canal. You’ll travel to many states on either tour, but only the Northern Tier offers travel across the border into Canada–it’s a real plus when you can cycle to the brink of Niagara Falls!. And there’s something about bicycling from one coast of the United States to the other that makes it hard to top!
Coast-to-coast: Debbie 4, Tim 4
Atlantic Coast: Debbie 5, Tim 4

The composite score (equal weighting for each) comes in as follows:
Coast-to-coast: Debbie 4.625, Tim 4.25
Atlantic Coast: Debbie 3.875, Tim 3.5

You might also find these articles helpful:
Top 5 Place on Cross-country Bicycle Tour
The Best of the Atlantic Coast Bicycle Tour
But don’t take our word for it. Venture out yourself, and please let us know what you thought!

Which bicycle route would you rather travel?

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Keeping the New in New Year’s

2014New Year’s is always a good time for reassessment. Questions like where have we been and where are we headed are well worth asking. Is 2014 going to look just like all the other years, or are there new adventures on your horizon? We all risk getting stuck in a rut, unable through our own power to see beyond present circumstances to a more fulfilling future.

I’d like to encourage you to consider new possibilities this year. After all, the time we have been given is a gift not to be squandered. So resolve to explore more of life. When you do, you’ll return your own special gift to those who journey with you, and to those whose paths you cross.

If you aren’t quite sure where to start, here are some ideas:

  • Begin a new hobby, or rekindle an old one
  • Volunteer for a cause that is near to your heart
  • Sign up for a course or buy a book to learn that skill you’ve wanted for years
  • Check the local events calendar and attend a special event to meet some interesting people
  • Invite the neighbors over and cook them a special dish
  • Plan a vacation that will take you somewhere you’ve never been before
  • Attend a Bible study
  • Buy a season’s pass for a local theater or sports team
  • Plan a weeklong bicycle trip, or a camping expedition
  • Change jobs, or approach the one you already have by asking yourself what can I give rather than what can I get
  • If your life just needs a major overhaul, maybe it’s time to move to another location

So, what does 2014 offer you? Or, rather, what do you offer it? Those are also worthwhile questions to ask. Whatever happens in 2014, realize that you have a vote. Unless you’re in jail, or unless you choose enslavement to your routine, you aren’t destined to a life of bondage to your present circumstances …even if it feels that way. You have the power to change. The decisions you make today will change your tomorrow. Once you’ve made the first step, others will follow with more rapidity and ease.

Will you live resigned to stagnation and boredom, or will you live resolved to experience life anew? Heaven knows there’s plenty of newness awaiting those who seek it. Exercise the courage to keep the New in New Year’s. When you do, 2014 will bring more joy and contentment to you—and you will bring more joy and contentment to it.

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