Pacific Northwest bike tour
August 3, 2011 2:49 PM   Subscribe

Planning first solo bike tour. I have questions about physical fitness, gear and on-road repairs, route planning, etc.

Planning a small solo tour somewhere in the Pacific northwest, probably Seattle to Portland but that's not set in stone. I do long rides several times a week but haven't toured in a serious way before. At current level of fitness, 35 miles over mildly hilly terrain is good and challenging but not draining. I feel like doubling that distance at a comfortable pace with breaks would be no big deal. How much more do I need to train for a relatively short tour, no more than a week or so? How many miles/days will I be able to handle in a row without taking a day off the bike? I plan to do a mix of hotels and camping and I doubt I would take any route that would take me really far from civilization, so I will have some flexibility.

As for the gear, I have the tools and knowledge to do the common repairs on the road (flats, brake adjustment, derailleur adjustment, broken chain), but some of the more complicated stuff I'm worried about. I haven't trued a wheel before on my own or replaced spokes, for example, so if I wreck my wheel I suspect I'd be SOL. How prepared for every possible contingency do I need to be in a relatively populated, bike friendly part of the country, especially when the tradeoff is carrying extra tools?

Lastly, routes. Is my best bet cobbling together a route based on the combined wisdom of Bikely, MapMyRide, regional transit maps and Google? I suppose I could just follow one of the previously published STP routes, for example, but those are meant for a huge group of riders and I'll be alone.

Anything else you wish you knew on your first solo bike tour, throw it at me.
posted by slow graffiti to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (8 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The first thing to remember about a solo bike tour like this is, it's not a race. If you commit to riding, say, 70 miles in a day, don't worry about how long that 70 miles takes you - if you're tired after 15, take a rest. If you see something cool to check out that's not on or near what you thought was a rest stop point, go see it anyway. You're on no one's schedule but your own.

I would suggest 3-4 days on the bike, and one day off, but that's just me - but if all you're going to do is Seattle to Portland, you could do that in a few consecutive days (two if you stick to the STP plan, but you could easily take five days if you want to meander) and not have any one day be a killer. I would say if you're touring for a 7 day week, though, plan one full day off the bike.

Following the STP route is a good idea, actually - it goes through a lot of neat little towns and you're never too far away from a town with a hotel in it should you decide you're not up for camping that night. For a first tour, especially a solo tour, you could do a lot worse.
posted by pdb at 3:08 PM on August 3, 2011

As for wheel repair, as long as you have a good, stout wheel with traditional J-bend spokes (as opposed to "system" wheels with brand-specific hubs and spokes) you should be able to get it repaired at any bike shop. Furthermore, your LBS could show you how to change a spoke, and an extra spoke or two with a little wrench won't be a notable weight gain.

I believe that anyone who can ride 35 hilly miles without being drained could easily ride a century if they wanted to, provided they took breaks. But if it were me, I'd skip camping and just stay in hotels -- I love camping, but tents are heavy to carry on a bike, and sleeping on the ground after riding your bike all day sounds unpleasant.

Have fun!
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 4:06 PM on August 3, 2011

You'll be fine. I biked across the US after spending the winter snowed in on a mountain; that is, exactly zero training. If you can do 35 miles without being drained you're ahead of the game.

I have no route suggestions, but a good rule of thumb for me has been that an hour by car is a day by bike.

When I broke a spoke in Texas, I just rode with no rear brake (so the wheel wouldn't rub) for a day 'til we made it to a city. You'll make do. Bring basic tools for basic repairs. Hint: If you decide you need a spoke wrench, which you probably don't, you can flip your bike upside down and use your brakes as truing guides. People are generally helpful. Don't worry about every possible contingency. Things may go wrong. They may not (it took me a thousand miles to get my first flat). Get on your bike and ride; you're already ready!
posted by aniola at 4:39 PM on August 3, 2011

A few suggestions:
  • Water. Take more water than you think you'll ever need. And if you can find a place to freeze your water overnight, you'll find it much more refreshing.
  • Don't worry about a broken wheel - it's not worthwhile carrying a spare, at least to me. A broken wheel usually means you've had a catastrophic accident. Don't forget a small medical kit (Adventure Medical Kits make decent ones) for small cuts and scrapes. Remember to include painkillers.
  • "Goop" tubes and touring tires can reduce the number of flats; ordinary tubes can be patched and reinflated very quickly with a tiny disposable CO2 canister.
  • Take a lightly-loaded trailer for the tent: keep weight off your back as much as possible. I prefer a (Burley) trailer rather than panniers: the bike feels lighter, remains far more maneuverable, and is easier to park.
  • Try to avoid cycling during the heat of the afternoon: ideally, get into the habit of waking up just before or just after dawn, cycle until 11am or noon, find shelter and a place to rest and eat for several hours, and then continue on after 3 - 4pm. You'll find you make much more progress and feel much better.
  • Get a good cyclometer (I prefer Polaris) and log each day; record your impressions and ideally share them online (if only for the education of other cycle tourers considering the same route).
  • Be aware of weather patterns: if you know or learn that a hot headwind arrives each afternoon, or if it predictably rains for a few hours every morning, plan for it and work around it. If possible, turn crosswinds into tailwinds by altering your route.
  • Do not be a slave to your plan. Part of the freedom of biking is the ability to take impromptu side routes. Be open to doing so.
  • Adventure Cycling makes very good maps for cycle touring (with useful information like vertical climb, suggested stops, etc), but "route by bike" in Google Maps can also work very well.
I hope this helps! Have fun!
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 5:10 PM on August 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Kevin Kelly had a post about his cross country bike tour. Since he did it in 1979, the information is maybe a little dated, but I find the Q & A with riders in the linked PDF interesting and inspiring.
posted by clockwork at 5:42 PM on August 3, 2011

Training: like the other commenters, I think that you've actually got a fine base for a tour. On "bicycle ride across " rides you always see people who have done zero training show up and bluff their way through a week of 50-75 mile days. In my experience, if you alternate short days and long days, you can go weeks without taking a day off the bike.

Gear/tools: I'm that guy that carries tools for every possible contingency and pretty much assumes I'll never see another human being. What I've found on tours is that people are extra friendly towards cyclists and will go out of their way to be helpful. You can hardly fix a flat without someone pulling over and asking you if you need a ride. I think that you've got most of the basics covered. The broken spoke scenario is a pretty real one if you are riding a fully loaded touring bike, but with a 32 or 36 spoke wheel, even an experienced tourist is probably going to just ride the wheel as is (with some tweaking to keep it in true) to the next town and deal with it there. I think you'll be fine with what you are describing.

Route: I've never toured in Washington, but have done a couple of tours in Oregon on routes that extend into Washington. Suggestion one: the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway). I've done the Oregon stretch of the PCH and it was awesome. There is a book and lots of websites on the PCH. So that might be one possible route to investigate. Suggestion two: the Pacific Crest Trail (not the literal PCT, but pavement/dirt roads paralleling the PCT). Called the Pacific Crest Bicycle Trail, it is also a fantastic ride. Much more remote and involves some dirt roads, so you would need to be prepared to be a little more self sufficient on this one.

Good luck with the tour and have fun!
posted by kovacs at 6:48 PM on August 3, 2011

I did a solo tour through England, Belgium, France and Italy almost a decade ago (geez, has it been that long already) with no previous bike touring experience, and my with my only "training" being riding my bike to work and back 30K r/t a day. Here's what I learned:

1. Pack less than you think you need.
2. Your training rides aren't about putting up miles, kit up your bike the way you'll be going on your trip (fill up your panniers, strap on that tent and sleeping bag) how does the bike feel, how's your balance, your brakes, your spokes, etc.? How do you feel about going up that hill? Revisit #1
3. On the road, this really and truly isn't a race. It isn't about how fast you get there or how many miles you do in a day (unless those are the things that are important to you)
4. I don't know how people do it these days, what with GPS and Google Maps and the Internet and all that, but back in 2002 you got yourself a good map (in France you wanted the yellow covered Michelin maps) and by good map I mean it had all the secondary and tertiary roads on them and showed where all the campgrounds were and where all the scenic lookouts were and where the other points of interest were and wherever there was a climb, the road would have one or two or three chevron symbols on it to identify the grade of the climb and the direction of it too so that in the morning while I was having my breakfast I could figure out how many miles I wanted to ride that day so that I'd end up somewhere that had at least two or three campgrounds I'd be passing toward the end of the day (nothing sucks more than getting someplace and it's full or it's expensive or it's just gross) and by which points of interest did I want to ride by and which hills did I want to avoid. As I write this, I feel more and more that GPS and Google Maps isn't the way. Find a paper map. Get two highlighters in different colours. One you trace your intended route in the morning. The other one you trace your actual route in the evening.
5. There are days that it's going to rain and you will ride in the rain and you will be fine with it. There are days that it's going to rain and you will stay in your tent/motel room and you will be fine with it.
6. Snacks are important.
7. On days when you have a strong tailwind, even fully loaded, you will fly up hills. It will feel awesome. On days you are riding into a strong headwind, you will look down at the cyclometer and wonder 'is that right? am i really only going 5MPH?' ... just remember as long as you are peddling you are going forward and getting closer to your destination.
8. You should know how to replace an inner tube and how to adjust your brakes. You don't need to know how to replace a spoke and true a wheel but you should carry a couple spare spokes (taped to your frame or inside your handlebars if you're riding with a flat handlebar) because you will find someone who is or claims to be a mechanic.
9. Pro tip - If you're not accustomed to riding on quiet roads where it's just you and your bike, you will suddenly become aware of all the sounds your bike makes while you ride. If you hear a worrying constant tap-tap-tapping, stop peddling. If it stops, it's the plastic nib at the end of your shoelaces hitting against your chainring.

For the record, I over-packed, never tested riding fully loaded, and ended up breaking three spokes in the first week of my ride before I had my rear wheel rebuilt with strong non-fancy spokes at some random bike shop a day's ride southeast out of London. I played Santa Claus at the campsite I was stuck at two days waiting for my new wheel, giving away all the spare batteries, notebooks, pens, that were weighing me down and breaking my wheel. Yeah, that might have been the best summer of my life.
posted by dismitree at 8:29 PM on August 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

First, take advantage of the resources available on the internet. Crazy Guy On A Bike has thousands of journals by people doing the same thing you're doing. Most people list their routes and the gear they brought along, so you can get a sense of what you'll need. And, you'll need less than you think.

I've ridden across the US and Europe. I was commuting twelve miles a day before taking the US trip, but I didn't train for it. I did take a 150 mile practice run to test my bike set-up. I would highly recommend this. I also did minimal training before riding across Europe. As mentioned above, many people train as they go. If you can cycle 35 miles with relative ease, you'll be fine.

I've traveled with panniers and with a trailer. I prefer panniers. A trailer has more moving parts that can break and weighs more than the panniers. Also, with panniers, I felt like I had more control over the bike.

Don't worry about learning how to true a wheel. I didn't have a single spoke break during either trip. If one does break, you should be able to make it to the next town where you can have it looked at by a bike mechanic. Pick up a good multi-tool. This is a popular one.

Enjoy the ride.
posted by Dalton at 11:43 AM on August 5, 2011

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