Important lessons (re)learned (2020)

When this blog was six weeks old, I summarized what I had learned from the three rides to date. Seven years and many thousands of kilometers later, those lessons have stood the test of time, but I have learned a couple of new ones. I had not met Cheryl back then, and my mentor has taught me much more than I could have learned alone. 

This blog is designed to be useful in the long term, so I make no apology for not discussing the current pandemic. If you are out there at all, or planning to ride after the pandemic, I hope these tips will be helpful.

If it’s not fun, why do it? I don’t mean laughing fun, but if it does not give me a feeling of satisfaction, of being worth doing, then either I am not doing something right, or I need to be doing something else. That is when it is time is ask for help (what am I doing wrong?) or move on with my life.

Umbrellas prevent rain. Well, not really, but I am amazed at the way being prepared for the worst has a way of making things turn out well or at least not so bad. I have rarely had to stop for bad weather. Similarly, setbacks like broken cables, flat tires, and missed connections have only created forks in the road, not barriers to the journey. With a backup plan, you always have something to do if Plan A does not work out. And I have often enjoyed Plan B as much or more.

The same applies to the office. Having more than one way to backup (and access) your files; multiple phone numbers for contacts; even spare change for a payphone – these all help develop the habit of being prepared.

As I mentioned in my last post, I have learned not to over-plan. Once I have the general plan in place, and checked for it really non-negotiable things that must be confirmed early (like registration for a conference or accepting a wedding invitation), I rely on the flexibility of modern communications to shape up the details as I travel. That flexibility allows me even to ditch one route and take a completely different one if needed. Still, that is like having a rolling Plan B that adapts to my situation.

Planning and being prepared includes having the resources to return to safety. Whether it’s my credit limit (and the ability to pay off my card) or cash in a money belt, I can almost always abandon the current trip and make my way back to family or home quickly and relatively safely. Sometimes, that may mean just knowing where the nearest train station is or whether the local bus lines will accept bicycles. I have even rented a storage locker for my bike and come back to it to resume the trip months later.

The nature of Plan A and Plan B have changed over the years, but the basic principle of knowing your options and being aware has not.

Smiles work both ways. When I remember to smile, or laugh, or at least see the humor or outside perspective of a situation, I simply can’t stay angry or resentful. And it disarms and calms people around me, too. I am working very hard on making smiling and humor a habitual reaction to things like road rage, discourteous drivers, and bullies. I am not there yet, but I have remembered often enough to know that it works.

Remember to smile when you are on the phone, especially when talking to a difficult client, a surly desk clerk, or when you are tired. The smile comes across and, if you’re listening, you will hear the shift in tone at the other end.

Ask for help. It gives the other person a chance to feel good and it gets your problem solved sooner. Don’t worry about asking strangers for help, be it directions, a lift to a repair shop or a recommendation for a place to stay or eat. If you are already freelancing for a living, then you have learned enough about people to spot the unsavory characters. They don’t change that much from place to place. And the statistics are in your favor: even in the “worst” neighborhoods, most people are good and helpful. Asking for help even when it’s not a crisis can help you meet new people, experience a place through the eyes of the locals, and learn new things.

Resources. I learned a lot from Distance Cycling by John Hughes (Human Kinetics, 2011, ISBN-13: 978-0736089241), adapting the information from the different chapters to fit my needs. The Adventure Cycling Association has a wealth of information, especially about covering long distances with a loaded bicycle (including how to choose gear). Bicycling magazine never grows old, and has at least one gem in every issue. There are many Facebook groups and other social media groups, where you can learn what those riding before you have learned. On Facebook, for example, just search for “bicycle touring” to find several groups with thousands of like-minded riders.

Construction barriers. Look up State DOT information sources when planning to travel through a new state, whether by bicycle or any other vehicle. Most states have a service either by telephone or online, which provides current construction information. These sites from the local Departments of Transportation are more accurate and reliable than the large national services that purport to do the same thing. The “construction updates” from Microsoft, Google, Garmin and Tom Tom do not seem to include everything. Asking for help and checking state and local sources has helped us avoid construction zones along the way. It works both ways. Often a construction zone completely blocking motor traffic is still accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists. The local Tourist Office or the staff at a bike shop should know.

Accommodations. When I was freelancing full time as a translator, I learned to use my frequent customer status with the various hotel chains to good advantage, both for accumulating points towards free stays and the added amenities like free WiFi or late check-in. Two years ago, I retired from commercial translation to devote myself to my own books and to live as much as possible on my bicycle. By then, I was camping and using hostels more than hotels. I had sold the car and left the house, so my overhead was very low.

Now I am a big fan of Warmshowers, a social site for bicycle touring. I have hosted cyclists through Warmshowers and been hosted in countless places where I did not have friends or family already. The concept is based on “paying it forward,” so asking for accommodations becomes a guilt-free opportunity to make new friends.

What lessons have you learned? What experiences can you share?

Feel free to “Leave a Reply” below, or to use the contact form so I can include your experience in a future update.

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

JT

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