Erika DeLeo is a 20-year-old student and part time worker at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Currently slated to receive her Liberal Arts A.A. degree in December of 2009, Erika already has one short bike tour under her belt and has plans for at least two more in the years to come.
Erika, first of all, how did you find out about bicycle touring?
I was exposed to bicycle touring for the first time about a year ago when I heard about a man who cycled the perimeter of Australia (an approximate 13,000-mile journey). It sounded like a crazy idea, but the seemingly impossible nature of it sparked my interest. I am a competitive, can-do type of person. I thought, if I he can do it, so can I! I had recently bought an inexpensive bicycle to ride back and forth to work and school. Before that, I hadn’t been on a bicycle in years, so this discovery of touring came at precisely the right time.
That day I began researching Australia’s climate, geography, history, and culture. The things I read deepened my interest in Australia as a nation as well as a cycling challenge. I knew I would need some serious bicycle touring experience to have the best chance of success in Australia, so I’m building up to that tour by taking a couple shorter tours beforehand. This trip around Australia remains my highest bicycle touring goal, and all preceding trips are geared toward building up to it.
Can you briefly describe your bicycle touring experience thus far? And then tell me a little bit more about your plans for the future?
My first tour (Summer ’08) was meant as a test. I had images in mind of how it would be to go on a tour by myself. I needed to know if I actually had what it takes to venture out and not freak out from getting tired, lonely, or lost.
On the first day, I had some doubts about my ability to complete the 200-mile route from my home to Allentown, PA, via New York City and New Jersey. I knew for sure that I would try my hardest, not stopping unless it was absolutely necessary. I learned that believing in yourself is half the battle.
In addition to that first trip, this summer I am planning an approximate 1,000-mile loop of New York State, beginning and ending in Poughkeepsie. The northernmost point is Cape Vincent (in the Thousand Island region), and the westernmost point is Niagara Falls. This should take about one month.
What type of bike and gear are you using and why did you select those particular items? And do you plan to make any changes in your gear selection for your upcoming tour?
On my first tour, I used a handlebar bag, two rear panniers, and a hydration backpack that carries two liters of water. I also have a small saddlebag with tools, tube, etc. in it. I chose panniers because they are the easier to handle than a trailer if I need to leave my bike somewhere. I prefer the hydration pack to water bottles because I can easily drink through the tube while riding (so cool!). I find the handlebar bag to be the most inconvenient because of its bulky, non-collapsible structure, but it is useful as an accessible place to store my camera, GPS, cell phone, maps, and food. This time around, I may use a fanny pack or something similar in place of it.
In addition, I ride a Fuji Touring, which I bought new a few months before my first tour. This bike has treated me well and I plan to keep it for a lifetime.
What do your friends and family think about you going out on your own and doing these trips? Do they encourage you? Are they nervous? Excited for you? Scared that something might happen? What…?
Before the first tour, everyone thought I was nuts and most people didn’t believe it could do it. This time around, it’s a different story. Since my family and friends have seen what I’ve done thus far, they have more confidence in me. My parents will be worried for sure, but if I have companions, they will be less so. I think there is a part of them that lives vicariously through these adventures.
Do you think being a female and traveling alone is any different than being a male and traveling alone?
I would agree that it is different to be a lone female rather than a male on a bicycle tour. The downside is that people may assume you are vulnerable (which you are – more so because they think you are). I have my own tactics for minimizing this risk. The upside is (judging from reports from fellow male cyclists) most people are more forgiving and generous to female cyclists. It’s a reality that you have to work with.
Why do you think it is that so few females choose to participate in bike tours?
Perhaps a major factor is vanity. Truth be told, bicycle touring is good and fun, but not clean. On the first night of my first tour I remember looking into a mirror for the first time that day, barely recognizing myself from all the dust and grime mixed with sweat that had collected on my skin. For a female who can’t stand being dirty, bicycle touring may not be for them. For me, it’s not an issue. I know I’m the same person no matter what I look like.
What has been the biggest surprise from your bicycle touring experiences thus far?
The resiliency of the human body coupled with the power of positive thinking has amazed me more than anything. I think that people often put up barriers for themselves to determine what they can and cannot do. Someone might look at a number of miles to travel on a bicycle and think it’s impossible. I’ve learned that these limits are often imagined. But if you take the step forward and say, “Never mind what others say. I’m going to give it my all,” you may find that the barrier you thought was there is actually non-existent. It makes you look at life differently.
In regards to your first 200-mile tour, exactly how much did that trip cost you? And how much do you think your 1,000-mile ride will cost?
My first tour spanned four days and cost me about $200. The majority of the cost was from staying in accommodations instead of camping. For the upcoming tour, I plan to do mostly camping and cooking, and the projected cost will likely be between $900 for one person (me) and $700/person (if I can get someone to join me for a portion of the time I am on the road).
Based on your experiences thus far, if you had just one piece of advice for someone who was new to bicycle touring, what would you tell them?
Drink enough water! Food is important too because drinking too much water without eating will lead to water intoxication, which sounds fun but isn’t. But nothing will put a damper on your trip faster than dehydration.
In addition, I’ve found that many people wonder why anyone would voluntarily subject themselves to the immense dangers and challenges involved in bicycle touring. These “negative” factors are actually part of the reason why cyclists do what they do. It’s a challenge for it’s own sake, but it also has intangible benefits such as achieving a greater awareness of yourself and different communities, and the boost of confidence that comes from knowing you’ve accomplished a great feat. I am confident that anyone who has completed a bicycle tour will testify to this.
And now that you have one trip under your belt and another one in the works, what parts of your upcoming tour are you most looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to everything! From the fantastic scenery to meeting new people, to seeing new places, and getting that feeling of accomplishment that comes from achieving a goal.
Finally, what do you plan on doing once your 1,000 mile tour comes to an end?
I will start planning another of course! Each tour has many purposes, which expand with each successive tour. As I’ve said, the first tour was to prove to myself that I have what it takes, physically and mentally. The upcoming tour is to gain more experience with the added tasks of camping and cooking. Over the summers of 2010 and 2011 I have general blueprints in my mind of tours I would like to take through other regions of the United States, but we’ll see what happens. I foresee Australia happening within three years.
To learn more about Erika and her future bicycle touring adventures, you can visit her website at: www.bicyclenewyork.blogspot.com. And if you have a question, comment, or word of encouragement for Erika, be sure to leave your remark in the comments section below!