Bicycle Touring Isn’t Just For Crazy Guys

So who the heck am I? Well, I’m the guy who runs, which is a place for bicycle tourists and their journals. As of this writing, the site has almost 3,000 journals and more than a quarter of a million pictures – all about bicycle tours.

Crazy Guy On A Bike?

I named the website “Crazy guy on a bike” for two reasons: First of all, all the good domain names had already been taken, and this name struck me at the time as being humorously long and unwieldy. Second, it seemed a pretty good way to sum up the journal of my trip across America back in 1998. I started off from New York City at the end of May, having quit my job, ditched my apartment and put all my possessions into storage. It was just me, the bike, and the stuff I could carry with me, wobbling off to the Staten Island Ferry as the first stage on a trip that would take me more than 5,000 miles over three months, to the opposite coast of the USA.

Now, in the comfort of your home, especially when you’re sitting at work, bored out of your skull with the everyday inanities of office life, “life on the road” can seem pretty romantic and ideal. I mean, I had visions of stopping whenever I wanted by the side of the road, next to some beautiful meadow or cornfield perhaps, and sitting under a tree, just listening to the wind and relaxing, before heading off down the misty road to some new adventure.

Well, yeah, it can be like that. But when you tour, you soon get the rude awakening – wind, dust, flat tires, rude drivers, hot sun, cold rain, long miles, big hills… basically, you are exposed to all the elements. Especially if you are camping, this can be compounded – at the end of a long day in the saddle, probably the last thing many people want to do is to stay outside, set up a tiny tent and cook a basic meal before slithering into your sleeping bag, still caked with sweat and dried salt.

Not to say it’s all like that – one of the main things to realize about bicycle touring is that it’s a lot like life – only more concentrated, and with all the same kinds of highs and lows. During my TransAmerica tour, I frequently thought I was going crazy in the sun and heat. Around Carbondale, Illinois I actually had to take a few days off in a motel just because I was actually starting to lose it. So, “crazy guy on a bike” was really pretty accurate.

So Why Do It?

Personally, I see bicycle touring as freedom. There is quite an amazing feeling when you are traveling along, knowing that you have basically everything you need to live right there with you on your bicycle. Ok, so you’re still dependent on civilization. Nobody is an island. But for the purposes of your immediate future, you are on the road and nobody knows exactly where you are – you are independent, you can go down this or that road as you like, and you have, to an extent, opted out of the modern day culture of complete connectedness. You are free.

Also, you are traveling completely under your own power. If you get up that huge hill, it’s because you did it. Nobody else did it for you.

There is certainly a spiritual component as well, where you begin to see yourself and the world in a slightly different light. When you get to the top of the big pass in the Rocky Mountains, for example, you earned that in a real way. On my travels I often times felt distanced from the other people who stepped out from their cars at such places. They somehow did not participate in getting to this place.

In addition to getting much fitter, you also have the opportunity to become much more self righteous and holier than thou, which is something we all need to do on occasion. Your aura of smugness will increase exponentially the further you manage to get, until people become blinded by your purity of spirit… and your smell.

I never expected to be anything more than my own journal. When I expanded it to allow other people to post their own diaries, I thought I might be lucky to get a couple of dozen accounts over a period of years. So it was a bit of a surprise when the trickle became a more persistent river of journals, revealing a thirst for expression of these experiences. Obviously there was something going on here – bicycle touring seems to evoke some of the traditional feelings of adventure, the pioneer spirit that our ancestors felt more than a century ago, combined with the urge to tell all your friends just what you managed to accomplish on your summer vacation.

I wonder if the Oregon Trail pioneers had blogs?

People often think that there are no more frontiers, and that it’s no longer possible to experience what the pioneers did as they went West during the 1800’s. But on a bicycle, a coast-to-coast trip across America takes on something of the same scale of those journeys (if not the sheer hardship and risk of death from disease and starvation – other than that it’s pretty close). You undertake a thing that will test you over time, and you will travel thousands of miles under your own power. You will find out things about yourself. It will change you forever. Nobody (and I mean that) comes away from a long bicycle tour unchanged. Seriously, you will never look at a shower in the same way again.

Now, almost a decade after I started CrazyGuyOnABike, I have seen the breadth of types of bicycle touring that people do. It’s not just about going coast-to-coast in America, obviously. People do mountain bike tours in Scotland, they go across Asia and across the county for the weekend. They travel on traditional “diamond frame” touring bikes and also on trikes, tandems and all manner of recumbents.

One of the frequent questions asked is “What is the ultimate touring bike?”. The answer to that is “Whatever fits you and can take the weight you plan on carrying”.

The most important thing is fit. It doesn’t matter if you pay $50 or $5000 for a bicycle, if it doesn’t fit you then you will have a crappy time. You’ll get sore, the bike might shimmy (harmonic wobble), there will be general tears and wailing and gnashing of teeth. On the other hand, someone on a well-fitting bicycle will have a blast. Maybe the best advice is to avoid the cheapest of the cheap “bikes” (or, more accurately, “bike shaped objects”) from department stores, as you’ll be forced to spend money down the line upgrading the cheap parts. It’s oftem times better to just get a reasonable touring bike right from the start. You’ll pay a little more ($1000 to $2500 or more) but it’s worth it, trust me. One of my bike shop friends told me that Wal-Mart bikes were his favorite, since they brought him so much business in terms of people bringing them in to be fixed.

Where Can I Get A Touring Bike?

The hard part is finding a bicycle store that actually has touring bikes in stock.  Bicycle touring is not exactly a super profitable industry in the USA at the moment. Most bike shops just have a bunch of road racing and mountain bikes on the floor. But occasionally you’ll find somewhere that deals with the Cannondale, Trek or Surly touring bikes. Just do some searching around to see what other people seem to be recommending and find a good bike shop that seems to know something about touring. Try to avoid places that have nobody who’s done any touring, where you get pushed by some young racing dude into a completely inappropriate bike just because that’s what they happen to have in stock. If you feel pushed at all, it’s not a good place, and doesn’t deserve your business. Try to avoid just sizing yourself up and ordering online, even if it seems cheap – a good bike shop will have much to make your time (and a few extra dollars) worthwhile, in terms of advice, swapping parts, and after-sales care. It’s worth traveling hundreds of miles to drive to a good bike shop (obviously talk to them on the phone first, to make sure they have something in stock for you to try out).

Try not to become a gear head – someone so obsessed with getting all the “right” equipment that you lose sight of the actual goal, which is getting out there on the road and riding! It’s very easy to get deep into comparing options and weighing up the pros and cons of disk brakes versus rim brakes, or 26” wheels versus 700C, or what type of rack to buy, or which style of pannier, etc, etc. Sure, do some research, it can be very fun. Ask some questions on the forums, that’s fun too (and you can make new friends (and enemies) too if you stick around long enough). But always remember that it can be a somewhat rude awakening to actually get out there on the open road with your shiny new titanium alloy gold plated super duper shiny electronic steed… and find out that you still have to battle that headwind all day long! And yes, you might still get flat tires. So moderation is key. Save the “perfect bike” debate for after you have some miles under your belt, at which point you’ll be in a much better position to decide what your ultimate machine will look like. And trust me, it looks different for everybody. There is no absolute “right” bike for everyone.

How Do I Get Started?

Start easy – with day rides, and work up to weekend camping perhaps. Then, maybe (if you haven’t thrown the bike off a cliff by now) you’ll want to try a longer tour. The ultimate, for many people, is a coast-to-coast ride across a continent such as Asia or America. The TransAmerica, which is a route defined by the Adventure Cycling Association is a fantastic example – the one I did on my trip in 1998. The reason it’s so wonderful is that it covers a really diverse swathe of the country. You see a little glimpse of the South in Virginia (and assuming you head West, which feels most natural to me), you then cross the Appalachian mountains, where you’ll suffer the first of many cardiac events climbing in heat and humidity. Kansas is flat (and has some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet), and it leads to Colorado, where the mighty Rockies await, along with clouds of tourists. Then there’s the high plains of Wyoming and Montana – wide open spaces where there is no sound but the wind and your own heart (beating much more strongly at this point, due to the constant daily exercise). The whole trip is, of course, leading up to that magical moment when you finally see the Pacific Ocean. There are few moments in a person’s life these days which can compare to the satisfaction of completing such a journey.

Then there’s the hard core – people like Peter Gostelow, who recently completed his epic trip from Japan to his home in England, via, oh I don’t know, most of the world. He took more than three years, and his journal is one of the best ones I’ve seen, with some photography that would not look at all out of place in National Geographic Magazine. Not every journey has to have that scope, but it just goes to show that you can literally “see the world” from the seat of a bicycle.

You don’t have to be superman to do this. It helps to be fit, certainly, but in the end, it’s more in the head. There is a big mental component to touring. If you can cycle down the street, and if you’re in basically ok physical shape, then you can probably pedal across a continent. Just take it easy, and you’ll get into shape on the trip. But your biggest opponent may well be your own brain – it can get very wearing, out on the road, day after day. It all depends on your outlook (and also a fair degree of luck with the weather). A book on survival I once read had the insight that the biggest differentiating factor in who survives emergency situations and who dies, is mental attitude. People who have the ability to appreciate nature (being able to “walk in parks” was the phrase, I think) – those people are much more likely to survive, quite simply. So if you find yourself only thinking about the negatives – the wind, rain, constant flats, or even the list of things that awaits your attention at home – then you may find yourself drawn toward quitting a tour. There’s nothing wrong with that; every trip has its end, it happens when it happens. But I think one lesson I’ve learned (having abandoned a tour just this year myself) is that it really helps, especially on longer tours, if you don’t have any big issues or responsibilities hanging over your head. Long tours are best done, in my opinion, at “corners” in your life – e.g. just after graduating high school and before college, or just after college and before your first job, or between jobs, or between marriages, or upon retirement. It’ll be different for everyone, but that’s one thing to consider. It helps if you can completely detach yourself and commit completely to the trip. If you can do that, then you’ll probably have a blast!

Bicycle touring rocks. You’ll meet interesting characters along the way, and in the words of Green Day – “I hope you have the time of your life.”

Hasta la pasta!

Neil Gunton – Crazy Guy On A Bike

2 thoughts on “Bicycle Touring Isn’t Just For Crazy Guys

  1. john demirjian says:

    I traveled somewhere each summer for 30 years on my bicycle, putting on over 55,000 miles over all on my Klein mountainbike. After a fashion, say 2-3 years at the beginning of my touring, I was able to get a shower EVERY day in the evening. The infamous water bottle shower comes to mind, where I would change into my swim trunks, soak down with the water bottle, lather up with soap, break the dirt loose with my bandana, and then rinse off using the water bottle a second time. Worked best at a spigot behind a local bank or at a closed business for the day. I did NOT climb into my tent slimy and sweaty and dirty for a day of cycling. I was ALWAYS clean. Think about that.

  2. Tom says:

    Having cycled for most of my life on road, mountain, touring in France,Switzerland, Spain, U.K., Portugal, Italy and Ireland both on and off road, cycling has helped me a lot and would love to cycle in other countries but not great on my own and would love the company so I admire a guy like you who take on very big routes the longest I ever done was 3,400K. The solitude on one’s own in a remote area then rolling into a big city cycling by lakes snowcapped mountains soak in hot pools or swim in lakes and moving at just the correct pace which alters by the Km., there is nothing else like a bike and a good route.

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