In the summer of 2012, I rode a three-week tour around New England, only 611 km, just to see if my clients would notice that I was not in the office in Charlottesville. I would have stayed out longer, but a call from the University of Virginia to teach in the fall semester cut my plans short.
I had an old cell phone with no data plan, but by then, one could at least find WiFi at Starbucks® and other places. So, I rode from coffee shop to coffee shop and checked in along the road. I was a Courtyard® Club member, the forerunner of Marriott Rewards®, which was very affordable back then, and was the first chain to offer free WiFi in the rooms.
Here are the lessons learned from that first solo tour; updated:
You can plan as you go. I am a hopeless planner, so I get nervous riding out without arrangements made and a Plan B in place. I left on this ride without all my accommodations lined up, reservations made, or tickets purchased. Thanks to the phone and the internet, I could satisfy my need to make advance arrangements, without holding up the trip to do so.
Today, apps like booking.com, hotels.com, hostelworld.com, hostelling.com, airbnb.com, TripAdvisor, and the various aggregators (Travelocity, kayak, etc.) make research and booking even easier. Now I don’t even make reservations until the same day, after I know exactly where I will be that night. Most transportation sites offer a full refund if you cancel more than 24 hours ahead, so even changing the route to go somewhere else can be simple.
Use your friends and family. Touring on a bicycle, I am not likely to stop by often. My friends and family were genuinely glad to see me. Some had not seen me in four decades; others knew that they would never see me again, as our lives move away. I would go shopping, do the dishes, fix things, and generally try to “leave no footprints.” A small, but wonderful, benefit of homestays is doing your laundry, which is something you just can’t plan for, but must be done often on the road.
Since the New England 2012 tour, I must add Warmshowers to the list of friends and family. If you are touring on a bicycle, Warmshowers hosts are friends even before you meet them. Most will offer the washing machine, even if you camp in their backyard. And I have added many of them to my Facebook friends and Christmas card list.
When you plan a tour, be alert to places where you know someone. It might be an acquaintance from a professional conference, someone you met in summer camp as a teenager, or the parent of a friend. Reach out and add them to your itinerary. I now put a star in Google Maps so that I am reminded of addresses in my contacts list when I am looking at a map. Even if you don’t stay with them (don’t take that for granted), you will be glad that you reinforced an old acquaintance or friendship by meeting them for a coffee, a meal or a beer – or just calling them.
Check your nuts and bolts. I used to wait until things would rattle to worry about loose fasteners on my bicycle. I rode the entire GNI tour with a slightly loose headset, thinking that the wobbling at high speed was caused by my panniers. The bicycling books and magazines were right: check all your nuts and bolts with a wrench before every trip, and regularly on the road. Every week on rough roads; maybe every two weeks on smooth asphalt. You should be pumping up your tires every week anyway. I now stop at a bike shop every week for free air and whatever else I might need.
Ferries. One of the most overlooked forms of transportation, ferries often take bicycles without disassembly, and they usually allow the cyclist to avoid hundreds of kilometers of traffic around waterways. I found that most of the ferry companies have websites, so finding and using a ferry is easy. However, local travel information often does not tell you how to get to the ferry landing or if there are any particulars about boarding. For this reason, it is a good idea to check out the ferry landing earlier and see if there is something you can do to make your boarding easier. If you cannot do that, a phone call to talk to a human being is not a bad idea.
Since 2012, I have become such a fan of ferries, that I would rather ride a little bit out of my way to take one than to suffer the traffic on the main road or the bad pavement and lack of shoulders on a back road. Ferries are part of the charm of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the rocky coast of northern New England, the islands of Croatia, the Danube River, the English Channel, the Olympic Peninsula, Puget Sound and the Inner Passage of British Columbia.
The GPS is often wrong. It is a weakness of the major GPS companies (Tom-Tom, Garmin, Wave, and Google Maps) that they really do not understand bicycle travel. Each company has a different set of assumptions about where they think a “bicyclist” wants to ride. None of the major GPS manufacturers offers sufficient customization to allow a bicyclist who rides in traffic to exclude only interstates and motorways or even to exclude unpaved bike trails. I learned not to use the navigation features of Google Maps. Instead, I use the location marker to make sure that I am still tracking across the map the way that I intended to. This is the 21st century version of having a paper map in a window on my handlebar bag.
In the decade since GPS became ubiquitous, very small improvements have come along. The Google Maps legend now distinguishes between dirt trails and paved paths, but it has not assigned the new coding to its older maps. What looks like a bike path might be an unprotected bike lane, and the app still sends me into open fields and dead-end parking lots occasionally. Many localities have added excellent bicycle facilities, which Google does not show. Instead, it will recommend a twisty route through poorly maintained backroads, when a protected bike lane is available on the main road nearby. Still, there are many more green lines on the map every year, as Google slowly updates its database with satellite imagery and the input from riders like me. I noticed that it took 18 months for the bike lanes that I reported open to show on Google Maps, but at least they are there now.
OsmAnd (based on OpenStreetsMaps and OpenCycleMap), offers fantastic detail, but requires technical training to use. Finding the legend is not intuitive. Also, being crowdsourced, the bicycle information seems better in Europe than on other continents.
The fitness and mapping apps ((Strava, MapMyRide, BikeMap, etc.) don’t seem to suit long-distance travel, but, if you have one of them already, they might point up some fun rides once you are in an area.
Local bus lines rock. From the convenience of the front-loading racks on city and regional buses, to the relative simplicity of wheeling a bicycle into the luggage compartment, buses have it all over trains, airplanes, and even some cars when it comes to intermodal transportation. The longer-haul bus lines like Concord Coastal were very comfortable, with WiFi, restrooms, and 120 V plug-ins for your computer. The municipal buses are usually air-conditioned, and very inexpensive. In some places, like Maine’s Middle Coast, the municipal and regional buses will take a bicyclist one or two days down the road.
Along with local bus lines and their generous treatment of bicycles, light rail is growing in many places all over the world. I now carry loaded debit cards for the metro systems in Boston MA, Washington DC, London UK, Rome IT, Vancouver BC and Paris FR. I also have the app for Metro New York. Getting near one of these congested metro areas is now actually a breeze; I am free to ride around and stay a while to visit (on the bike or not), or zip to the other side to carry on.
The only serious long-haul bus line that goes everywhere in North America, Greyhound, still won’t take unboxed bicycles, but they would have to buy all new buses to make that work well. Their cargo bays are a few inches lower than more modern buses, so bikes must be laid flat, increasing the chance of damage. Buses offer the most economical long-haul alternative, but a bicycle tourist can’t carry a box along. The long-haul bargain buses (Megabus, Bolt, etc.) are focused on runs between major cities, which Amtrak duplicates.
In Europe, I found that most long-haul bus lines took bicycles. It was especially convenient to reposition from Dubrovnik to Split in Croatia to start our island-hopping along the Dalmatian coast. In Spain, however, we were reminded that the bus driver is like the captain of a ship. Regardless of the company policy, he can refuse our bikes on a whim. Once, we succeeded in having the station master overrule him; another time, we had to slog our bikes in the rain to the train station. When it really mattered, though, the bus driver let us on board.
Local bus lines in Europe are less bike-friendly, because the front-loading bike racks are not ubiquitous yet. In Europe, the buses are crowded; people really use their transit systems. On the other hand. I can’t think of a European city that I would prefer bussing through to biking, and the light rail and train services are great.
I have not ridden in Africa, Asia, Australia, or Oceania, so reports from most of the world will have to wait.
Meanwhile, do you have any lessons learned to share from bicycle touring, especially if you were carrying your work with you?
Until next time,
Smooth roads & tailwinds,