When I left home in the summer of 2001 to ride my bike from Eureka, California to the Mexican/American border, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. As far as I was concerned, this whole “bicycle touring” thing was an entirely new concept – maybe even an entirely new sport? I didn’t know how I was going to travel over 1,000 miles on my rusty old mountain bike, but I did know I would figure out a way to make it happen!
After 30 days of cycling down the Pacific Coast of the United States, I learned a lot – both about myself and about what it takes to pull off a successful bicycle adventure.
The following is a list of ten important lessons I learned while on my first bike tour.
1. Be comfortable on your bike before you leave home.
On the first day of the trip, my riding partner (Jason Weber) and I stepped off a Greyhound bus and found ourselves instantly thrust into our fist bicycle adventure. It was pouring rain, the campground was more than six miles away, we hadn’t slept in over 24 hours, and we still had to put our bikes together.
Once our rides were assembled, we both jumped on the bikes and rolled out into the street. To our amazement, the bikes were incredibly hard to control. Packed with gear, the front of our bikes wobbled from size to size as we struggled to gain control.
This was the first time either one of us had ridden our fully-loaded bikes. We were carrying a lot of stuff and we had no idea how to make the bikes go in the direction we wanted them to.
I can still remember those first few moments of riding. I remember thinking to myself, “We aren’t going to make it! If this is what it’s going to be like, there’s no way we are going to make it all the way to Mexico. I wonder if we can even make it to the campground? What have I gotten myself into?” I’m sure Jason was thinking the exact same thing.
Whether you are using panniers or a trailer, I highly recommend that you ride your bike before you leave home. Not only should you ride the bike, but you should be comfortable riding it in its fully equipped state. Use the techniques I recommend here to get used to living on your bike before you ever leave home. The last thing you want to do is get out on the road, not be able to control your bike, and either crash or cancel the tour because you are ill prepared. Know how to ride your bike before you leave home!
2. The first three days are going to be tough.
Once we had gotten used to the feel of steering a fully loaded touring bike, the next thing we had to get comfortable with was the pain in our legs.
When I woke up on the second day of the tour, I remember thinking that my leg had doubled in size. I had never experienced pains quite like this. It felt as though the muscles in my thighs were about to burst out of my skin. It was incredible!
I had a hard time getting up that morning. And the next morning wasn’t much easier. But as the days went on, the leg pains went away… and by the time I reached San Francisco, I wasn’t in any pain at all. I was having fun, rolling with the punches, and enjoying the ride.
One thing I’ve consistently experienced on all of my bicycle tours is that the first three days are usually the toughest. If you can get past the first three days, you’ll probably be able to make it the rest of the way without any major incidents.
3. You’re going to be hungry. Deal with it!
One thing that never left me on my tour down the California coastline was the intense hunger pangs I was experiencing. I was eating less than $3.00 of food every day… and there was even a stretch of time when I went for three whole days without eating a single thing (simply because I couldn’t afford to buy food).
Because I was on such a tight budget, and because I had so much time to just sit and think while I was riding, a lot of my thoughts centered on the foods I wished I were eating. As I sat on my bike and struggled up hill after hill, all I found myself thinking about was food. In particular, pizza and ice cream.
It has taken me some time, but I’ve slowly trained my mind to stop thinking about food on my bike tours. Don’t get me wrong, I still get cravings, but I’ve learned to think about other things.
When traveling by bike you are burning a lot of energy and you’re going to be hungry, so you better get used to it. My recommendation is that you not let the hunger get to you. Train your mind to think about something else and you’ll enjoy your ride a whole lot more.
4. This isn’t a race. Go at your own pace.
My good friend Jason Weber was my first riding partner in 2001. He joined me for the leg of my tour that stretched from Eureka to San Francisco… and while riding with Jason was a blast, one of the main differences between us was that Jason liked to go fast, while I liked to go a bit slower.
Day after day Jason would push himself to get to the campground ahead of me… or to catch up with the riders in front of us. Time after time he would charge up a hill, while I slowly make my way up the mountain passes and rolled into camp as he finished setting up his tent.
While I don’t necessarily think either one of us was right or wrong in our approach to bicycle travel, I do think that you need to take things at your own pace. If you don’t want to go fast, don’t got fast. If you don’t want to go slow, don’t go slow. Travel at a pace that is both comfortable and enjoyable to you.
If you are riding with a partner who wants to travel at a faster or slower speed, make arrangements for the faster rider to stop and wait for the slower rider at the next turn. Communication is key. Don’t get lost. Don’t get separated. Have fun and travel at your own pace!
5. Pick your riding partners carefully.
I had four different people come out to ride with me on my first tour down the California Coastline. Jason Weber joined my on the first leg; Jason June joined me on the second leg; and Ryan Nakashima and my Uncle Tom joined me on the final leg down to the Mexican/American border.
After a month of riding with four different people, I began to see just how different we all were. We all liked to travel at different speeds. We got along at times and argued at others. Sometimes we all just wanted to go home.
In the end, I learned a lot about getting along with other people. I’m not what you would call a “people person” and getting along with these different personalities was extremely difficult for me at times.
If you are planning to travel with another person, or even a small group of people, make sure you pick your riding partners carefully, You are going to be spending a lot of time with these people, and you want to make sure you can at least get along. More than anything, you want to make sure you won’t kill each other once you get out on the road.
Pick the right riding partner(s) and your trip will be incredible. But pick the wrong partner(s) and your trip could be over before it’s even begun.
6. Have fun!
Having fun is important and it’s something you should strive for on your bicycle tours.
On this first tour of mine, my riding partners and I didn’t have the money to pay for entertainment, so we made up games to play as we were riding (such as trying to spot limousines or trying to get the other person wet with our water bottles when they weren’t paying attention).
A lot of our entertainment came from simply exploring our immediate environment. We would walk through the woods, skip stones in the surf, and peruse the neighboring communities on foot.
More than anything else, we created our own fun by simply getting out and talking to people. Because we were on bikes, we were an easy target for people passing by. They’d want to know where we were from, where we were going, how much weight we were carrying, and a whole host of other things about our adventure. It was a lot of fun to talk to these people… and if we hadn’t done it, the trip would have been an entirely different experience.
7. You won’t need half the stuff you think you need.
Once I was out on the road I realized that I was carrying a lot of stuff I simply did not need. This is the mistake many first time bicycle travelers make. They bring everything from home that they can possibly think of. But once out on the road, they quickly realize they are only using a quarter of the items they origionally brought with them.
On my first bike tour, I brought an ice chest, a full size bath towel, a spare tire, and a whole bunch of other stuff I simply never used. I carried it all for over a thousand miles and never used these items a single time.
Learn which items you need to bring with you and which items you should leave at home. If you find that you really need something once you get out on your bike, you can always buy that item somewhere along the way.
8. Know how to make repairs to your bike.
One of the best things I learned from my first bike tour was how to repair my bike. Prior to leaving home, the only thing I really knew how to do was change a flat tire. But once the tour was over, I could make just about any repair that needed to be made. I wasn’t necessarily a mechanical expert (and I’m still not), but I could make the needed repairs that could get me back on my bike and rolling down the road.
If you are planning a bicycle tour, you should know how to at least change a flat tire, fine tune your derailleurs; adjust the handlebars, seat, and brakes; and install your front and rear racks. Ideally, you should be able to take your bike completely apart and then put it all back together again. You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble if you know how to make these basic repairs before you get out on the road.
9. Gear selection is important.
Because I didn’t have a lot of money on my first bike tour, I bought and used inferior equipment. Because the gear I was using was cheap and ill equipped for the conditions I was throwing at it, many of my most important items broke, tore, or were destroyed by the time the tour was over.
For example, I bought my tent for $30 at a local sporting goods store and quickly found out that the reason it was so cheap was because the tent had no ventilation whatsoever. Every morning I woke up to a gallon of precipitation hanging on the top of my tent, instantly drenching me as soon as I moved a muscle.
In addition, my bike was a 15+ year old mountain bike my dad had been keeping in the garage for years on end. It was a complete piece of junk, but I used it anyways. If I had had a nicer bike, my ride would have been so much more enjoyable.
And believe it or not, because my bike was not made to carry a front rack, I used a thin piece of wire to hold my front rack in place. After a few days on the road, the wire would break and my panniers and rack would crash into the pavement in front of me. I would then attach more wire to the front rack and continue down the road, only to repeat the process all over again a few days later. It was a seriously dangerous situation and I was lucky to have not been injured on numerous occasions.
The point I’m trying to make is that it’s worth it to invest in quality equipment. If you are planning a bike tour that lasts for only a couple days, you can get away with the cheap panniers, the lousy bike, and the tiny non-ventilated tent. But on longer trips, you’re going to want to spend the extra money and get quality touring equipment.
10. Once it’s all over, you’re going to want to do it again.
More than anything else, my first bike tour taught me that this whole bicycle touring thing was not going to be a once in a lifetime event.
When I started my tour, I believed that I would do this ride, go off to college, and look back on my experiences as an incredible lifetime achievement. But once I got home and began thinking back on my cycling experiences, I realized that bicycle touring wasn’t something I was ready to give up on. I wanted more! A lot more!
Many people plan and execute their first bicycle tour with the intention of making it just a one time thing. But as time goes on, I’m seeing more and more people who get out there once and then become addicted.
It’s hard to describe, but bicycle touring isn’t something that’s easy to quit. If it were, I wouldn’t be writing about it today. The experiences stick with you and change you in so many different ways. It’s not something you can do just once and forget about. It stays with you… and you’re going to want to do it again. Trust me!
So that’s it. Those are the ten big lessons I learned from my first bicycle adventure. I hope you’ve learned something… and I hope I’ve inspired you in some way to make your own bicycle touring dreams become a reality.
For those of you who have traveled by bike before, I’d love to hear what you have learned through your travels, and I’m sure those who have yet to tour would like to hear about your experiences as well. If you have a lesson you learned on your first bicycle tour that you would like to share with the other BicycleTouringPro.com readers, please leave a comment below.