After four months riding a bike in the US, and a few days being back in France, now is the time to write down what I’ve learned about this unique activity.
The first point certainly is, it’s fantastic ! You discover a country better and more intimately than doing it in a car, or moving from place to place through train or plane. You really get to feel the distances, the ups and downs, the various climates, see all the people, and all in all get more connected with the land. It can also be done by anyone : most people I’ve met on the road were older than me, generally couples, or dads + sons. Quite a lot of groups also. There is a physical challenge of course, but as long as you are healthy, it can be done.
It can also be done on the cheap. It’s not what I did, mostly going to hotels, but even that can work out if you share rooms in a small group, as the chinese team did. They spent just as much as me on lodging on average, but spread over 4 people. Lodging was probably more than 80% of my budget. Going camping slashes that by ten, and you can get under 40$ a day.
If you ride alone, you will get very, very lonely. I wouldn’t advise it unless it’s a personal trip, as was mine. In any case, people in the US are much friendlier and open than in Europe. Be open to encounters, strike conversation, keep your smile up. It’s easy to talk to most people in most places, even for someone like me, except maybe in large cities. But then again, many places are very empty. The web is the next best thing to talk to people. After that, you can engage a talk with squirrels.
Good maps are critical. You can get lost very easily in a remote place with noone to help. GPS signal, phone coverage are erratic and you can’t count on them, especially in the west. On the east coast, it was less important and I relied on GPS guidance, which is good with bike pathfinding on google maps.
Getting into a routine was very good mentally. Biking alone can be tough in some areas, and knowing when you have to do what, helps settling into an habit and leaving details behind to focus on the trip itself. Checking where to stop the day before, starting and stopping at about the same time was great. You don’t get to think about that anymore.
Climate can be a sizeable force against you. Rain is not a big deal, as long as you protect your shoes, or have a special, waterproof set. Biking under the rain is nice as long as it’s not cold, and if you can change quickly after the ride. Heat can be an issue, but you can ride earlier to avoid it. Cold can be countered with good clothes. Wind is the biggest challenge and wore me down very fast, physically and mentally. I would have stopped earlier if I had the option, whenever faced with a strong headwind.
Drivers in the US are really great, courteous, even friendly. I had ten times more thumbs up, salute, nods, than aggressive honks. And that’s not counting bike riders and other cyclists. Truck drivers also take great care of you, staying behind when necessary, switching lane when possible. That was one of the big surprises of my trip.
Trailer or panniers ? I haven’t tried panniers so I can’t lean on in the debate. I was very happy with my trailer. Easy to fill, close, remove from the bike. I can forget about it while riding : no air resistance, one wheel meaning I didn’t have to care about its own path… It wore down the back wheel fast though : two changes vs none on the front wheel. No issue with speed, except when combining with bumps.
When around civilization I was carrying two liters of drinks and refilling whenever I was going down in the second one. When there was nothing, I would carry three or four. I never got higher than a gallon. Adding sports drinks in the mix quickly became necessary to get those electrolytes back. I was eating bananas, granola bars, snickers… Carrying beef jerky also, but never got to prepare a meal from scratch, I was buying when needed, or going to restaurants or fast foods. I had to eat quite a lot more than usual to compensate the effort, especially meat.
Tech-wise, the smartphone readily replaced the video camera and the laptop. With more battery, it could have replaced the kindle, maybe. The usb plug into the dynamo was a great help, but not totally critical. I simply didn’t have to worry too much about getting everything filled before riding. If I had done more camping, it would have been more essential of course.
Resting regularly was really important, I didn’t do that enough overall. Once every week (at 40 yo at least) seems a good average. It depends on the road difficulty too, getting ten days straight in the Rockies was too much.
I was very selective on what to carry, still, I threw away a lot, and sent back home even more. I suppose that’s typical, in any case you will take more than necessary. Two sets of riding clothes is enough, plus a regular town set. The total weight is not a big factor : I tried skimming away as much a possible near the end, but losing a couple pounds of stuff does not make a difference on the road.
Stretch after each ride, before each ride, use chafing cream, stop regularly during the day… All standard rules, but they make the difference between a nice ride and a wrecked body. Getting in shape before the ride as I did, with a few weeks to reach a regular daily distance, helped a lot easing into the trip. People starting from scratch such a ride had a hard time for a couple of weeks. What I didn’t do though, was stretch my fingers. Ten days after the end, my joint are still aching a bit and snapping to the handlebar position. I should have used a stress ball daily to avoid that.
Check your bike often, don’t trust any mechanic. I carried a pair of spare tubes, which was enough to get to the next shop to replace them. Self-sealing, extra thick tubes are great, they took me through most of the trip, and probably through all of it, had I been wary of the back tire. The trailer wheel can take a lot, I think I was really unlucky in getting two flats in two days. The back wheel, with the trailer weight, is the weakest. I learned how to replace a tube but was not proficient with that. I should also have learnt how to tweak the gears switch, this was a constant trouble. In terms of tools though, I had all that was necessary : a monkey wrench, a swiss army knife, a few tube pliers, and a set of allen keys. Plus of course a pump.
Prepare entertainment too. Unless you go for a fast ride and want to be on the bike 8 hours a day, you’ll be resting a lot, which means a lot of time staying in the same place. I’ve found the Kindle to be great, lots to read, long battery and minimum weight and space. I decided to go without any doodling material, but it could have been worth it. I should probably have prepared more games on the iphone. And chosen a bigger one too, I quickly ran out of space simply because of pictures. Taking photos is fun too, and you’ll always wished you had more. Music is of course another critical source of entertainment, and here also, 2000 songs was just not enough. Accessing the radio was a good bonus.
The biggest learning though is… life is short, and easily wasted. Time flies by like a hummingbird. Don’t wait ! Get prepared, get set, and leave ! Finding enough free time is always the biggest deterrent to do such a trip. But time is the only commodity we all have, but that noone can buy. Use the time you have to the fullest.