Across America by bicycle … in about 8 weeks!
September 27, 2013 12:04 PM   Subscribe

I've always harbored an ambition to ride across the U.S., but I thought I might have to quit my job to do so. My company just implemented eight-week sabbaticals though, so maybe I won't have to! I'm considering doing it next year, and I'd like some advice from people who've done a similar trip.

I'm in my late 30s, and a relatively experienced, middle of the pack endurance athlete. I've been averaging about 2000 miles a year. I did 3500 in 2011, when I was training for the Ironman.

I'd like to go from New York City, where I live, to San Francisco, where I have family.

I know 8 weeks is a pretty short time to cross the U.S. by bicycle, but I may be able to tack on as many as 4 weeks of vacation on to that. But I don't want to waste all my vacation, so maybe my time limit should be 10 weeks.

My questions are:
1) Is 10 weeks enough?
2) If so, what kind of time window should I plan for? Late spring, mid-summer, or late summer? My ideal route would be NYC to SF.
3) When should I start training? I had planned to devote fall to a run training cycle, and I still haven't asked for the time yet, so the later the better.

A little more information: I'd probably do credit card touring (staying in hotels night to night), since I'd want to reduce the weight of camping gear and because I don't have a lot of camping experience.

I'd love to rope in visits to friends in Chicago and Minneapolis, and maybe even the RAGBRAI in Iowa, but I know that would be a bit crazy unrealistic.

I've been doing some of own investigating. I've read a bunch of blogs by people who've done similar trips, picked up the books, "Across America By Bicycle" and "The Complete Book of Long Distance Cycling," and started to read up on the Transcontinental Trail. Anything else I should consider?

posted by Borborygmus to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
10 weeks is enough definitely enough-- I did around 2800 miles biking, plus some train trips and stopovers, in a cross-country trip from Pittsburgh to San Diego (visiting friends along the way) in a bit over 2 months. NYC to SF is 2900 miles or so, which comes out to a very reasonable 48 miles a day biking 6 days a week. Mid-summer is good, so you have long days in case of long days in the saddle. It's also reasonable to grab Amtrak for parts of the long trek across the endless corn grid that is a large chunk of the Midwest-- I skipped North Dakota, especially because I would be travelling against the prevailing wind.

Minneapolis would add a big chunk of miles onto the trip, unless you got an assist from Amtrak. Chicago and RAGBRAI would certainly be possible to do.

You will probably want to travel from San Francisco to New York, as prevailing winds are west to east. Fighting headwinds (and they blow swiftly on the plains) all day is awful.

I had little experience camping before the trip, but picked it up along the way. In lightly-settled western areas, it's often the only option for many miles. And staying in a hotel every night for two months adds up fast.

If you want to follow the beaten track, with services for bicyclists marked along the way, make use of the Adventure Cycling Association's routes:

There are many long-haul rail and canal trails in many states.

When I did the trip, I did a bit of competitive biking and was a utility rider, but hadn't done much distance riding during the spring. You build up fitness pretty quickly during the trip.
posted by akgerber at 12:25 PM on September 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I did a much shorter self-supported tour with a friend (SF -> Seattle; roughly 1000 miles). We usually did around 50 miles per day. Our best day was maybe 75 miles. I was not super fit at the time, but the most difficult parts were not strength- but comfort-related (staying comfortable on the saddle, keeping a good posture so as not to get tired out in the shoulders, etc).

The default bike route given by google is about 3250 miles, which at 50 miles per day is 65 days. Of course, you'll be riding over the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas... So even 10 weeks is probably cutting it kind of close (what if you get sick for a few days? what if your bike breaks? etc)

When we were planning our trip, there were warnings about roads in certain high elevation areas not even being open until early summer (snow!), so you should probably check out any of these on your planned route. I'd personally go as early as possible; riding in slightly cold weather is way easier than riding in the heat (you need more water, too).

Also, credit card touring may be difficult in some areas; it works best for shorter tours in more developed parts of the country (e.g. people love CC touring in California wine country for a few days). In the middle of Nebraska or Wyoming it might be harder.

Things to think about.

In closing I want to say: you can do it! Cycle touring is generally easier than people think and can be pretty fun.
posted by beerbajay at 12:28 PM on September 27, 2013

My son rode cross country this past summer. He was with a group of 11. Took 44 days. There were days off each of the 6 weeks. Granted, he is a teenager half your age, but his training consisted of about 20 miles a day for the two weeks before he went. They stayed in motels, college dorms and had a few host families. He had about 25-30 lbs of gear with him. It depended on what he carried for the group. They did 80 miles a day on average.

What I got out of it was that it was successful because it was very well planned out. They had specific routes for each day, a spot to stay, knew of food stores along the way, etc. I think sensed that it was truly just a concern about riding rather than other day to day concerns about shelter, route, food, etc. Make the ride time the ride time. Make from now until the ride the planning.

1) 10 weeks is enough.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:29 PM on September 27, 2013

Ah, my google route was probably avoiding highways, which would account for the extra milage. In any case, plan for some buffer days for rest, sickness, etc. Ensure that the route your're estimating with is one you'd actually want to ride (many highways and freeways are not all that pleasant to ride along)
posted by beerbajay at 12:31 PM on September 27, 2013

I was often doing 70-80 miles a day. It was fun and shouldn't be any trouble for an endurance athlete, though it didn't leave that much time for seeing the sights. I'd done my share of longer rides before the trip (during the midsummer, from late May to the end of August), but only one of 60 miles or so that spring.

Midsummer was pretty hot, which is why I chose the Northern Tier route. A bit later in the year might be nice, but you'll start to need more warm gear. It's cold even in the summer in the mountains, though. The nice thing about midsummer is the long days, as you don't really want to be on unfamiliar country roads after dark, especially on weekend nights.

Comfort-wise, get a good touring bike ASAP and dial it in well before the trip. I swapped a road saddle out for a Brooks saddle mid-trip, and that made a huge difference in terms of comfort.
posted by akgerber at 12:47 PM on September 27, 2013

If you don't feel like you want to tackle the logistics of the trip solo, my friend did New Haven (Connecticut) to San Francisco in six weeks as part of a Habitat for Humanity ride. They basically did no training beforehand but paced the first week to sort of build up to speed. Another organization that appears to do something like this is Bike & Build. Their FAQ is here, if you're curious.
posted by kate blank at 12:48 PM on September 27, 2013

/r/bicycletouring on reddit is fairly active - a lot of folks post with questions and things mid-tour
posted by exogenous at 1:22 PM on September 27, 2013

8 weeks is definitely doable. I rode the Southern Tier (caution: self-link) in 2010 in 35 days, plus a 4-day layover at home in the middle.

I followed the Adventure Cycling Association maps and recommend them—they're really well put together. I think they'd be invaluable for anyone planning to do their ride credit-card style—I camped some, stayed in cheap hotels a lot, and stayed with Warm Showers hosts a lot. I plotted out my daily endpoints at least a week in advance during the ride, and the ACA maps made that easy. Some argue that the maps take the adventure out of it, and there's something to do that, but I got out of my ride what I wanted to. I would study those maps (and the nearby areas that are off-map) to make damn sure I could find lodgings for the night, every night, within reasonable riding distance, if I was going to leave my tent and sleeping bag at home.

You might look at the ACA maps and consider doing the Transam with the Western Express detour, as it takes you directly to San Francisco. Be warned that they consider the Western Express to be extremely difficult: it goes through some unpopulated areas where you'd have a hard time getting water, and you'd pretty much need to camp.

If you haven't already been reading the tour blogs over at Crazy Guy on a Bike, I recommend you do so. A lot of touring lore is passed along through it, including the best time of year to ride a given route.
posted by adamrice at 3:14 PM on September 27, 2013

A friend and I rode self-supported from upstate NY to the UT/NV border. It took us 53 days, though we had a few 0/low mileage days in there.

As for training, there is no way to "train" for a cross-country bike tour like you'd train for, say, a road marathon. You just can't duplicate that kind of repetitive/sustained effort. Ride as much as you can, eat healthy food (and get lots of calories!), and learn how to do all basic repairs on your bike. Practice riding the bike you're touring on loaded with the weight of gear you're taking. The first two weeks or so of your tour are your training for the rest of it.
posted by thewestinggame at 6:52 PM on September 27, 2013

Be very careful about protein consumption. Many long distance cyclists go carb crazy and end up with a protein deficiency that makes them feel like they have the flu.
posted by srboisvert at 7:29 PM on September 27, 2013

Seconding Warm Showers.

West to east is faster, so if you're worried about making time, go that way. East to west took us about 3 months, but we took the long route (5000+ miles) with stretches of time off in cities and national parks. We met a group of Mennonite dudes who were staying in hotels, packing light on racy bikes, not drinking with the locals, and riding west to east in 4-5 weeks. Of course we met them sleeping out in a park next to our tents, since there were no rooms in town, so don't count on hotels always being available.

If you are a halfway decent cyclist, you don't need a special training regimen. Getting in the right head space is much more important: be prepared to take adversity in stride, accept unexpected opportunities and kindness, and generally improvise. And since you have 3 more weeks than the Mennonites, I do recommend drinking with the locals!
posted by domnit at 8:19 PM on September 27, 2013

I rode from Brooklyn-SF in the summer of 2004. A friend and I winged it - barely made a route beyond connecting the dots between our common points of interest. I rode a fixed gear conversion, he a mtb. We were young and dumb. 4500 miles in under two months of riding. After crossing the Adirondacks, we rode over 100miles a day.

You don't need any special training - your time on the bike, especially in the hills of PA will get you fit quick. Practicing how to maintain a positive mental attitude is much more important than any physical fitness. Memail me for specific info, should you have any questions.
posted by stachemaster at 11:02 PM on September 27, 2013

RAGBRAI always goes west to east, though. That'd be quite a long way in the wrong direction.
posted by scottatdrake at 10:53 AM on September 28, 2013

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