Should I pedal to the Ph.D?
July 21, 2009 9:19 PM   Subscribe

I’m considering biking from Madison, WI to Austin, TX in October. Please help me assess whether this is a good idea.

Background: I am currently living in Madison while finishing my dissertation, which I hope to defend in late October/early November in Austin. My committee needs a month of lead time between when I turn in a final draft and the defense date. I know that I will spend that month fretting about the things I ought to have included, worrying about the job (or more specifically, lack thereof) awaiting me when I return, and any number of other incidentals. One of the main things that has kept me sane while I write has been quality time on my bike. As a way to keep the fretting to a minimum and use the intervening month between handing in my final draft and defending, I’m considering doing a self-supported bike tour from Madison to Austin. I love the idea, poetically, of ending this long and grueling academic slog with an appropriately equivalent physical one. Is this feasible? Is it wise? Is it worth it? I’d be grateful for any perspective that can help me make a more educated decision on the following points:

-route and distance: According to it looks like there’s a pretty established bike touring route for most of the Mississippi. That’s about all I’ve got. I’d like to plan a route taking into consideration a balance of reasonable distance, route safety, scenery or general interest. What resources should I be consulting? Can anyone with personal experience recommend (or recommend against) any part of this route?

-physical preparation. I currently average about 60-80 miles a week, but never carrying more than about 20 lbs. Longest ride this season has been 65 miles. I’m 31 and in relatively solid aerobic shape (I’ve done 3 sub-4:00 marathons and am just back from a stress fracture to running a few days a week, no more than 5 miles a day yet). How much training would I need to do to be relatively happy undertaking this journey?

-gear. I own, and love, this bike with all stock components. I’ve got a heavy-duty rack on the back. I own one smallish set of panniers. I’m thinking, after having read other AskMe posts, forums, etc that a front rack and bigger panniers are more my style than a trailer. Are there other necessary/recommendable component upgrades I should do? What about camping gear? Repair tools?

-traveling with a laptop: good idea? Horrible idea? I like the idea of being able to blog the trip, and more importantly review my own writing or do other necessary diss prep on the way. Is this a recipe for disaster? Is it worth the weight? How about recharging batteries on the road?

-how much will this cost? I mentioned the unemployed grad student part above. How can I find cheap and safe places to camp, or couch-surf along the way?

-skill set: I’ve got plenty of experience camping, and biking, but none bike camping. I can change a tire, lube a chain, and that’s about it on a bike. What other essential repair skills should I learn, and how/where can I obtain them?

-finally, what am I forgetting to ask?
Thanks in advance, hivemind!
posted by dr. boludo to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I had some friends that cycled most of the way from Philly to Oregon. Although you mention that you are considering a self-supported trip, they managed to get sponsored by some bike company, which paid for a lot of things and provided them with drop-shipped parts when things inevitably broke down. You might want to look into that as an option.

The bikers in question blogged intermittently whenever they could find a friendly computer to upload photos to flickr, or at the houses of friends they stayed with along the route. They also ate a lot of peanut butter, energy bars, and cooked noodles by strapping Nalgene bags to their thighs.
posted by ktrey at 10:19 PM on July 21, 2009

Best answer: Don't bring your laptop. It's one more precious thing to worry about. In general, you will not be able to really secure you or your bike too much beyond your lock and the kindness and consideration of the strangers you will meet. Also it's weight. without a reliable power/internet source it's dead weight. leave it. Also, you're not really doing either diss prep or awesome bike trip if you try to do both simultaneously.
Second, the time of year is in-fortuitous. The weather, and more importantly the daylight, will be against you. The latest i've ever done self-supported bike touring was early October and it was a race against darkness many times. Also, as I was camping, many of the campsites, and attendant services, like food (BREAKFAST!) were shut down for the season after Labor day.
That said, I haven't done the Mississippi. Perhaps that will be do-able at that time of year. Although my instincts say that it would be harder than necesssary. Everything i've heard from cross country biking friends is that Missouri is Hell's armpit and must be endured, never enjoyed.
As for route and distance: A friend of mine has done it (in the summer) and now has the Route 61 placard tattoed on his shoulder, so it couldn't have been then bad.
Things that, I feel, are necessary to know on a bike trip (not pre-trip maintenance)
Patch a tube.
Replace a tube.
Replace a spoke, gear side or off gear (the gear side will require freewheel/cassette jobbery)
adjust seat/stem height
deraillieur adjustment
minor rim truing.

pre-trip, of course, you do your major maintenance: Hub packing, bottom bracket packing etc.
The only other gearwise recommendation i'd make is REALLY FREAKING GOOD PANNIERS. I have the ortlieb buckets... they are fantastic. Don't skimp on the panniers. Your clean underwear and dry socks depend on it.
third, cost: I would rate yourself at about $1/mile. food, accommodations etc. Of course you can do it for cheaper, but then you might suffer more than is strictly necessary.
This is supposed to be good for you. Not a trial.
Fourth: You'll be alone. This is not so great. For either your enjoyment, or your ability to keep going sometimes. because, as for training, the only thing that will condition you to ride 80 miles a day then wake up the next and ride 80 miles again is, really, doing just that. The physical challenge is, for me, less daunting than the mental at times. See if you can't convince someone to go with you. This also makes the whole endeavor a lot safer.
Fifth, this is not, unto itself at all a bad idea... just not, maybe the best timing. Perhaps next spring would be better as a well deserved reward for all the hard graduate school slog.

If you can afford the time, this summer, or before then. I would suggest doing a self supported trip... to Milwaukee, or Chicago. Or Minneapolis. 2 days or so in this mode will give you a much better idea of what goes into these touring rides... damn, you just missed ragbrai... and whether and when you want to do such an undertaking.

best of luck.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 10:32 PM on July 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

I realize that you are thinking of this as an unsupported solo trip, but...

The most important job of a powered support vehicle for long distance bike touring is its use in shadowing riders on high traffic highways. There is no substitute for a rolling roadblock just behind you, when the difference in your speed, and overtaking vehicles' speed is more than 40 mph, on two lane highway. Forcing overtaking vehicles to pass, by doing a full pass in the opposite lane buys you a large safety cushion you can get no other way.

The second most important job of a support vehicle is to carry water, gear, spares, and provide a nearly instant shelter and emergency backup transportation option, when any of those things are required. An unsupported touring rider, carrying full gear, is such a comparatively fragile entity that the only realistic planning alternatives are massive schedule flexibility, and pre-arranged help and support network, that you can call in by phone, when you do run into trouble.

As an example, October is the end of hurricane season, and if your ride is going to go down the Mississippi, and veer around the southern end of the Ozarks, there is a non-zero chance you are going to be running into weather systems of several-days-in-a-row-very-windy-and-rainy-weather due to some tropical storm system coming up from the Gulf. Trying to ride through something like that is foolish to a fault, but will you have schedule flexibility to stay put somewhere, dry and safe, until bad weather like that blows through and you can go again?

This would be a big adventure, if you were riding with a motorized support vehicle, and a team that could keep your equipment going for you and your schedule and rest stops organized with little effort or input from you. Doing it all yourself, unsupported, in a month?

Nah. Nothing like fun. Nothing like likely to succeed, either.
posted by paulsc at 10:45 PM on July 21, 2009

I love the idea of the trip (and hate the idea of a support vehicle, practicality be damned) but this sounds extremely unlikely. You're not in shape to ride ~50 miles a day on a heavily loaded bike, you don't have much of the gear you'd need, your bike-repair skills are undeveloped and your resources of both time and money are stretched thin. I can see you liking the trip itself, but I can't imagine doing all this preparation and finishing your dissertation in just one fat month.
posted by jon1270 at 3:18 AM on July 22, 2009 just one fat month.

Oops, 2 months. Still, not enough for my taste.
posted by jon1270 at 3:20 AM on July 22, 2009

If you do this, these are the repair skills you will NEED:

Replacing brake cables and shoes, and adjusting brakes afterward (it looks like you have cantilevers, which is an advantage, they are a bit easier).

Replacing shifter cables, and adjusting deraileurs (front and rear) afterward.

Breaking a chain, and putting it back together, replacing damaged links in a chain

You should also have the tools and parts to do these repairs with you on a trip. Also, brifters, in particular the shimano ones, are very bad for unsupported touring, because they are very fragile. Pretty much every time I have crashed my bike, my brake lever has been hit hard enough to knock it out of alignment on my handlebar. The part that gets hit is the most fragile part of a shimano brifter, and they are notorious for getting destroyed in otherwise minor bike wrecks. I recommend upgrading to bar end shifters, or campagnolo brifters and the matching campagnolo drive train, for touring (with your budget I am pretty sure bar end is the way to go).
posted by idiopath at 4:55 AM on July 22, 2009

You'll have to get a lot of gear. THat's a minus. You're already in shape (80 miles/week? sub 4:00 marathons? Yeah, you're in shape. And you've got two months+ to bump up the mileage). That's a plus.

Illinois is flat - I"m pretty sure you could flood the whole state with a six-foot wall around it. Missouri, well, we don't cut *into* our hills, we go over them. You'll tire easily, but recharge easily, too. (one time on a road trip, after driving 20 hours, I let the other guy drive. the instant we were in the Ozarks, I could tell, even with my eyes still closed.)

You should be able to map out a route that keeps you on smaller roads. Illinois near St. Louis has a ton of old railroad bed trails to ride on, including a bridge over the Mississippi without cars.

Bottom line, from a guy who's got three years on you, and never got around to taking the cross-country bike ride he talked about after college - too caught up in getting a job, etc: Do it. Do it. Do it. You're unlikely to get the chance again, and while you may regret it in the end, you'll regret the "shoulda woulda coulda"s ten times worse.
posted by notsnot at 5:11 AM on July 22, 2009

Best answer: Rereading your question: Park tool is my favorite web site for repair instructions, this link goes to an image map where you can click on a part of a bike to learn how to repair that part.

Your wheels may not be up to the stress of touring, for shimano hubs many people go with a mountain bike hub like a deore. I am unfamiliar with the wtb rims. My suspicion is that since the volpe is sold as a multi-purpose bike, they are not shipping it with a heavy duty weight carrying wheel, which is definitely a safer bet for unsupported touring.

Speaking of: a repair skill I forgot, learn to replace a spoke and true a wheel enough to keep your bike ridable. You don't need to get a wheel perfectly true, but if you break a spoke on the road and you don't know how to replace it or don't have a replacement spoke, the lack of a few hours practice on a basic skill and a $1 piece of metal wire will cost you a greyhound bus ticket.

I forgot to mention that you will want a multi tool with as many of the tools as you can get for doing all these repairs, plus whatever stand alone tools you might need that are not present or unusable on the multitool (one way to cut down on tool load is to carry the brake and shifter cables pre-cut to the appropriate length).

Also, I meant crash or unintentional laydown where I wrote wreck in my comment above - I have actually heard of shimano brifters (the top of the line "durable" ones, not inexpensive ones like yours), breaking because a bike fell over stationary without a rider - it becomes a wreck rather than a laydown when something breaks, but the point is with a different shifter it wouldn't have been a wreck.
posted by idiopath at 5:17 AM on July 22, 2009

Popped in to give some encouragement. My friend walked from Waterloo, ON (think Toronto area) to Boulder Colorado for a conference a few years ago, and he found it to be a really great experience. He kept costs down by doing a lot of camping, but had an emergency fund motels for really bad weather/exhaustion, that kind of thing.

A quick google search suggests this might be a good place for you to pick up some more bike repair skills, as well as meet some people who might have been on a longer trek.
posted by carmen at 5:51 AM on July 22, 2009

I can't believe all the naysayers in this thread. Yes, you can do it and yes it will be an incredible experience. If you go cheap it will cost you about $10-15/day stealth camping or couch surfing. You'll need the bicycle map set published by Illinois Department of Transportation and whatever Texas and Missouri put out. Take the small farm-to-market roads where ever you can. Google Maps walking says 1,150 miles. Add 40% to account for those small farm-to-market roads and you're at 1,600 miles. At 60 miles per day that is 27 days, so you should be fine.

I did a shorter ride from southern Wisconsin to Tennessee with no real preparation. My first day I road 40 miles, the furthest I'd ever ridden up until that point. I used a plastic drop cloth for a tent and road an old steel frame Univega with wheels from a Trek 720 (cheap hybrid). I took a pair of vise-grips and a cassette tool and I made it in about 9 days with only a few broken spokes. I had a pair of cheap panniers but you can make your own out of kitty-litter buckets. Since you are going so late in the year you'll need good lights and good rain gear, or at least non-cotton clothing to stay warm in the rain.

Now when I tour I ride a beautiful Co-Motion Americano touring bike, sleep in a Sil-Nylon tarp tent and a carry variety of Park tools (that I now know how to use) but the experience is still basically the same. If something breaks you try and fix it. If you can't fix it you either make do or walk to the nearest town and pay someone to fix it. Sometimes that is a really long way but the technique is still one foot in front of the other, repeat.

Riding day in and day out by yourself can be lonely, especially if meeting new people doesn't come easily for you. That said, there is no logistical reason why you can't do this and it will be a memorable experience even if you take Greyhound back from St. Louis (bring a pedal wrench so you can box your bike for the bus).

The Touring listserv is a fantastic resource, especially the searchable archives.
posted by ChrisHartley at 9:58 AM on July 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I hate to be discouraging, but this is not really something you want to do for a solid month before you have to defend your dissertation. I'm estimating the journey as being at least 1200 miles, which averages out to 40 miles a day--not that much, seemingly, but that's wind, rain, and/or shine, regardless of geography and days off for rest (and you will need rest days) and major repairs, if needed. The probability of your having to give it up at some point to get to Austin in time to rest a little before your dissertation defense is very high.

If you want to do a long bike trip before your defense, why not stick to Wisconsin and Minnesota? It's one of the most insanely beautiful places to be in the entire country during October.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:34 AM on July 22, 2009

Best answer: Having completed two long unsupported tours (cross country NYC-SF in 2004, and roundabout euro trek in 2005, & both on a fixed gear) I'd encourage everyone to try it at some point. It's a great adventure, you really get into your own head, and see new places (as well as venues missed by most interstate highways) at 10-15mph which lets you enjoy them more. I know nothing about weather conditions and storms as mentioned by others above, but I slogged thru weeks of rain at a time, as well as a torrential, painful hailstorm and still had a blast.

Looking at the touring sites and discussion forums is a good start. Adventure Cycling is a good organization and their maps are great should you wish to follow their routes. They also tend to avoid heavily trafficked roads, which tends to make the trip more enjoyable. I find it helpful to pickup highway maps (free at the AAA office should you or a friend be a member) to see the route in a larger context, since AC maps only show the surrounding 5km or so.

Your first week is all the physical prep you need. Touring quickly becomes what you do daily - wake, eat, ride, eat, sleep - you'll acclimate to it quickly. Anyone can keep a pace of 10mph, and riding 100miles a day is easy when you take all day to do so.

Your bike should hold up fine. I've traveled with both trailer and panniers, and can speak to advantages of both. Trailers let you carry a bunch of unnecessary crap (ooh! a 3 for 1 deal on peanut butter! I'll take that!) but pulse when climbing, panniers only let you carry the essentials but add weight to the bike. Pack your bags with your camping/bike gear/clothing and see how much space you have. Check out The Touring Store for deals on panniers, the owner is also extremely helpful in answering any questions you may have.

Leave the laptop at home. Do keep a journal/sketches in a notebook then scan those pages later, adding them to a blog if you must. If doing dissertation prep is absolutely necessary, then perhaps a trip of this sort isn't the best idea, since you'd have to cut in on your adventure to think of work. Maybe a shorter trek to a cabin/vacation house/somewhere else with internet would be an alternative, should you need to work at a computer. Do carry your cellphone and digital camera chargers and perhaps a spare battery for both, should you be unable to find an outlet at a cafe/bar/gas station.

I was a broke college student when I toured, and I ditched camped all the way across the USA and Europe, with the exceptions being some major cities where I had friends. You could try, but I prefer the Warm Showers List, a bike-touring couch-surfing site. It can cost as much or as little as you like: I ate bananas, peanut butter & nutella/honey sandwiches, avocado, and granola bars everyday to keep costs down, rarely dining in restaurants or cafes. One tip: I often found places to stay by asking "do you know of any spots where i can set up my tent for the night?" as opposed to "where can I camp?" Also, when in doubt, seek a cop/firehouse out. I had smalltown cops unlock parks for me to sleep in, as well as let me into the stationhouse to shower.

I'd follow all of Cold Lurkey's repair suggestions, and agree that you should take a short weekend tour trip to be certain about things before committing to a longer trek.

I disagree with what paulsc and jon1270 wrote. You don't need a support vehicle nor are you in bad shape. I didn't know much about bike repair, nor was I in any great shape when I underwent my tours. You're traveling thru metropolitan united states -any bike shop would be able to fix mechanical problems in a day or two. I'd also not bother about replacing the brifters with downtube or bar end shifting, since you aren't trekking thru far off places. A shop can have parts overnighted to them from a distributor should you run into trouble. In the event of a crash, change gears manually til you get to a shop.

Some things not covered: I use for all my camping gear, since it's somewhat local to NYC. Check availability - they sometimes sell last year's model tents and gear at discounted prices, not sure if they still would halfway thru 2009. Get a good, light rainshell (it serves as my umbrella & winter coat when layered) and blinky lights for the bike. I hope you already have a helmet and bike shorts.

But should the pressures of your dissertation keep you from attempting your trip, it's never too late to bike tour. A friend is on a supported ride this summer with 3 70year old Texan grandfathers!
posted by stachemaster at 10:37 AM on July 22, 2009

I feel like stachemaster has a lot of great info there. I just want to add that I think you should do it. Everyone is unprepared for their first tour, but everything always works out ok in the end. The first day will be hard and you won't go very far. And each day will get progresssively easier. It isn't hard to ride 60 miles each day when you have nothing else to do. Stop often. Eat when you're hungry. Camp wherever people let you set up a tent.

Adventure Cycling maps are really fantastic. I feel like they offer peace of mind when you're in the middle of nowhere. I have a friend that leads self supported tours across the country for Adventure Cycling, and we talk often about how great the maps are. Her trip journal from the Southern Tier talks about some of what was encountered in Texas specifically, and gives you an idea of what multiple tourers of various skill levels encounter.

I also agree that you need to leave the laptop at home.

You sound better prepared than most of my friends when they started. You're in fine physical condition for this. You have the perfect entry level bike for it. And you have the time, which may never happen again.
posted by monkeystronghold at 11:06 AM on July 22, 2009

Sounds like a great idea to me! There's absolutely no downside unless you convince yourself that biking every inch of the way is essential. You can stop anywhere where there's a bike shop (for the empty bike box) and a Greyhound stop. If you start with the conviction that bailing out wouldn't make you a bad person, then you'll have eliminated all context for disaster and the trip will be a joy the whole way.

One other small thing: The days will be short and the nights will be long. I'm thinking of a good summer camper who goes crazy filling the awake-in-the-dark time. If that's you, get a big light for your tent, and take advantage of small-town night life along the way!
posted by gum at 2:10 PM on July 22, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks to all for your insights. The smart arguments for and against definitely have validated both my desire to do this and my hesitations.

I hadn't considered the shorter days when I was estimating mileage, nor the possibility of serious ugly weather in LA and TX at the end of hurricane season. Those seem like pretty key considerations in why most people don't do this route this late in the year.

I have, or can borrow, more gear than I mentioned above -- a good and light tent, camp stove and cook set, sleeping bag, and clothes. But the panniers and bike upgrades recommended above are certainly a non-trivial expense and one I'd take seriously. Thanks for the hints on good sources for that, too.

Ultimately, though, I think Halloween Jack and Cold Lurkey win it for the "not the best idea right now" column not because the trip itself is undoable, but because combining it with end-stage dissertation work is unwise. Pity how being pragmatic and being poetic are so often at odds.

That said, I've seen how preparing for a long bike tour when I finish has been productive in pushing me along in my academic work (hey, there are far worse ways to unwind, no?), so I think the plan is to continue upping my mileage, take a weekend repair workshop or two at my LBS, and shoot for doing a shorter tour in the area during the same time period (and good call, Halloween Jack -- October is my favorite time of year in the Midwest and I'd be a fool not to enjoy it).

With that under my belt, maybe you'll hear back from me in the spring about planning a longer tour next year! Thanks again to all.
posted by dr. boludo at 7:55 PM on July 22, 2009

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