16 August 2010

A few thoughts on Cyclotouring

I never meant this blog to be about long-distance cycling, and I've tried to keep the posts from being about myself. However today I'm going to forget this policy and, by reader request, share some thoughts and personal experiences regarding long distance cycling.

I actually started riding long distances before I was a transportational cyclist. I was still a city-walker when we lived in Paris, but I bought a road bike to accompany my then-boyfriend on rides out exploring the countryside around Paris. You do need a good bike for this kind of adventure. My first long ride was Paris-Chartres. We extensively used MayQ's routes and advice, all of it is highly recommended, Route #6 will take you to Chartres in about 100km. However I hurt so badly on that first ride thought I was going to DIE.

This is important to remember, and my husband brings it up often. I don't think anyone is born with the ability to go long distances right away. You must build up your endurance, you must build up your saddle seat, you must build up your navigational skills. I'm here to tell you it's worth it, but know that there is a learning curve, start somewhat small, and remember those first rides because you'll look back on them and smile at how far you've come.

I went from that 60 miles or so to doing 250 miles in New Hampshire one day on one occasion and later that summer doing 800+ across France in 8+ days and not even feeling sore. So I can tell you that it can be done. If I can do it you can do it, I find it helps to have a mantra. When I was a wee girl my favorite book was The Little Engine that Could. Now, cycling, I just repeat "I think I can, I think I can". You'll have to find yours.

So we started going further and further and eventually added overnights to the mini-tours. We just do motel-style bike touring, there are some incredible souls who carry tents and stoves on their bikes and I'm certainly not there yet! I learned that if you ask for bike parking you'll be told they have it and it will be a rickety rack in the back of a parking lot. If you call and explain that you have an expensive road bike that can't spend the night outside, but you really want to give the motel your money, they will usually find an acceptable place for the bike, or direct you to a nearby motel that will work. This approach has worked in the USA and France, I imagine it will work just about anywhere. When in doubt just sneak your bike in. If you leave no grease (and you really shouldn't) they'll never know anyway.

Nelson Longflap Carradice on Raleigh
Going away for overnights and longer adds the complexity of packing for the trip, so let's talk about bike bags and minimalist packing strategies. On my lovely Raleigh International I ride with a Carradice Nelson Longflap (with a Bagman) for touring. I've used it stretched to capacity with everything I needed for a 10 day trip (including a bottle of wine made by our friend's father) and I can't really imagine ever getting a larger bag. I suppose if I ever wanted to tour in a cold climate I might need more space. Anyway, I have modified the attachment system on my bag to allow me to take it on and off the bike. This is particularly important if you're visiting towns and parking the bike on the street. The steps I took were as follows:
  1. visit hardware store. Find flat-bottomed hooks that have narrow enough hook parts to fit through your Brooks saddle loops. This may take several iterations, and I have many hooks that DON'T actually work.
  2. pull the Carradice-supplied straps through the attachment holes and push the hooks through instead. Run the straps through the flat portion of the hooks and loop twice around the internal dowel. Fasten once and be happy that you'll never have to fasten that again.
  3. Extra-Credit - take two D-rings and a length of webbing. Sew a short strap and thus fashion yourself a purse strap to carry your Carradice around your destination.
I can take more photos but hopefully these will help convey the idea. Here are the hooks peeking out from the bag:

hooks to attach a Carradice bag
Here's what it looks like on the inside of the bag:

inside the modified Carradice bag
Here's the bag with the "purse" strap attached, ready to be carried around while your bike is parked:

Carradice Nelson longflap with shoulder strap
Finally, here's a closeup of the photo above where you can see the hooks attaching the bag to the Brooks saddle, the "purse" strap is stowed inside:

Carradice hooked to Brooks saddle

Now all of this can be avoided if, like my husband, you get their "Seatpost Quick Release" (SQR) bags. I didn't care as much for the look, and the mounting bracket won't work on my Campagnolo aero seatpost (and that is a thing of beauty) so this was my only option.

Once you have your bag ready for touring you have to fill it. We have a team list and then personal lists. Things that the team needs include (in no particular order):
  • sunscreen
  • sunglasses
  • toiletries
  • map(s)
  • lights
  • cash, credit cards
  • cell phones, camera
  • bike lock
  • riding clothes
  • civilian clothes/pyjamas
  • saddle cover and rain gear
  • snacks, water
  • tools, tubes, pump
Note that this list should logically expand, lights would include batteries to make those lights work, etc. Also, while we both need sunglasses only I need to bring regular eyeglasses so those we logically file under "toiletries" and my husband doesn't worry about them. You'll work out your own system but this is what works for us.

As for my personal packing here's all I took on a long weekend trip last year (dubbed 4 States, 4 days, 400 miles):

packing photo bicycle tripIn this photo you can see my bag and helmet, both with taillights, a bag of toiletries, a jersey and bike shorts and overskirt, rain coat, arm warmers, gloves and socks, my long black jersey dress, cycling shoes, grey tights for early morning/late night warmth, a wallet I modified into handlebar-mounted camera case, the purse strap, my cell phone, wet wipes, headlight and sunglasses with extra lenses. Not pictured are my underwear because, while I want to help other aspiring cyclotourists, nothing will compel me to post photos of my underwear on the internet. But don't forget yours!

simple dress works for cyclotouring
A word about my jersey dress - this was one of several black jersey dresses I picked up in college, and I wish I remember where! It's light, very drape-y, will not wrinkle, is comfortable to sleep in but can dress up to look completely elegant. I wore it with a black shrug out in France and Madame at our bed & breakfast was astounded at how elegant we looked. She couldn't believe we had that in our little bike bags! If it impresses a former Parisienne then it's good enough for me. I like looking like a relatively normal person for the non-cycling portion of the adventure. I don't know what the equivalent garment will be for you, but I'm certain there is a low-fuss simple option that's probably already in your closet.

When touring far from home you're faced with the question of transporting your own bike or renting one there. I think there are two questions to ask yourself:
  1. Am I a standard size in the place I'm going and are they likely to have a bike that is comfortable for me?
  2. How long will we be riding? Will there be enough vacation off the bike that having it around will be a hassle?
You'll have to work these questions out for yourself, but for our 8 day trip we brought our own bikes. This is no small task! We got cardboard bike boxes from the local bike shop (free) and pipe insulation from the hardware store (~$5/bike). We wrapped the tubes of our bikes in the pipe insulation and wrapped all the components in bubble wrap and clothing. The story is better told in person, but there were all these miraculous circumstances that ended up allowing me to have an old skateboard cut so we had a platform, trucks, and wheels for each bike box. When we got to CDG we pulled out the wheels and duct tape and added them to the back end of our boxes. We could then pull them to the RER and through the streets of Paris. We were lucky enough to have friends willing to store our boxes while we travelled, so we just reversed the procedure to go home. I believe that some hotels have basements where they would do the same thing.

skateboard wheels on a bike box
I can tell you that our homemade solution got a lot of attention in the streets and airport. I thought people were irritated by our large size until I overheard an American family exclaim "Oh! It has wheels!" I guess the wheels are small enough it looked like it was levitating.
Anyway, hurray for Yankee ingenuity, this worked very well for very little cost.

skateboard wheels on a bike box
By the time we were back home in Boston the cardboard had gotten a bit mushy. If you travel much longer than that you might want to reinforce, or actually get a real travel box.

So why bother with all this? If you've read all this text you probably already have the itch to get out there and see the world at the speed of a bicycle. In my experience I've found that you see things, smell things, taste and eat things that you never would have encountered sealed away in a car. People, particularly men of a certain age, just love to come and talk to you about your bike. I've made friends around the world this way. In my case, more than anything, it's been a wonderful adventure with my husband, a microcosm of our more general journey together which has given us new communication channels, appreciation for each other's skills and strength, and a rich set of shared experiences to enjoy even in the midst of the less exciting daily life. It's like therapy, I suppose, but a LOT more fun! So much fun that we spend our time thinking about getting out there again. Where to next? We're planning the next big adventure for September...

In the meantime, happy adventures to all!

adventures by bike


somervillain said...

what a wonderful and informative post! thank you! i will have to bookmark this one as a reference for if and when i ever get to your level of cyclo-touring!!!

Annalisa said...

Thanks so much for posting this! We have been talking about doing some touring this fall, too. And yes, we will be the crazy people with our tents and stove and all that. :)

sarah said...

thanks so much for this post. still a relatively new bicycle rider. your road bike has completely inspired me, esp as we'd like to bike from winery to winery on our honeymoon next summer! hurrah :)

dr2chase said...

My experience is that the sore-butt goes away pretty quickly. I distinctly remember getting plenty sore on a training ride the week before a century, and for the century itself, no pain, just dead tired. (This is years ago, when I was 13.)

I did 100km of riding on Saturday (Massbike, 47mi + there and back), on the same bike I normally ride about 50 miles per week, and was pretty happy with the results. Was on my feet for another 5-6 hours afterwards (hosting a party) and spent a good chunk of Sunday doing heavy work in the backyard. My thighs were a little tight, but not really painful.

Oh yeah -- did the Sat 100km in the same shorts I wore when I did that century at 13. Good thing wool stretches.

So definitely, go for it. (And my normal ride is a cargo bike, so room-for-stuff is not a problem. Weight-of-stuff, that is another matter.)

Anonymous said...

I have always just walked the bike into the hotel, and then the room. Every thing from the Embassy suites to nasty little motels. If its been a realy horrible day and the bike is covered in filth, I ask for a couple of disposable rags to clean it, and really clean the heck out of it. if its already pretty clean, I make a show of cleaning it. Never been denied. Generaly I am in a tent, but every four to seven days its nice to either get warm or get cool, take an hour long hot shower, and watch the weather channel. I would never leave my ride in a shed though.
(funny aside, once at a really nice hotel in St Louis I cooked a bunch of pasta on my stove right outside the front door. It was a holiday, The fourth, and all the restaurants were closed, I mean everything. So at a $120 night hotel I ate curried noodles out of a pan and watched the fireworks from the balcony. The next night I slept in a park, but ate at a really nice restaurant.)

Anonymous said...

Love your bike. Nice setup. Also like the Carradice-friendly dress!

Sinbad and I on the Loose said...

Great post. A 250 mile ride, 800 miles in 8 days...wow! I am more than impressed.

George A said...

More photos, please, of your bag mounting hardware. I can sort of visualize it. Your readers might enjoy reading some of the cycling journals from cyclo-touring trips from practically any place one can think of by going to the crazyguyonabike web site www.crazyguyonabike.com

Best Regards,
George in Maryland

cycler said...

Such a great post!
I'm so with you on black jersey dresses!
What shoes do you wear with it? I'm a super light packer, but shoes are my downfall.

The Scientist says I need to get a more touring- appropriate bike, and I say that he needs more gear accommodating equipment on his bike, and we need to figure something out so that we can do a bit of travelling by bike together.

I forget- when you rode in France, did you bring a bike, or rent one there? We're contemplating touring in Europe, but finding a bike that will fit the 6'5" scientist is worrying us.

Charlotte said...

Thank you all - I hope you all do get out touring.

Sarah - be careful on that winery to winery tour. It's *hiccup* fun, *hiccup* but you better keep your wits about you! :)

Dr. Chase, I don't think they sell wool shorts like that anymore. I know we'd love to buy some. That's an impressive lifespan for any cycling shorts! (and congratulations on the rides and parties!)

Anonymous, that's a great story, and while I don't think I'd ever feel safe sleeping in a park I get it totally. One thing I appreciate about these tours is that we do get to eat so well at the end of the day. So many calories burned and so little other money spent, we're dining like kings at the end!

Cycler, for shoes I have a few strategies. As you saw, on shorter US-based trips I just wear the cycling shoes (I have cuter ones now from VO) but in France I wore bright red espadrilles, which store down pretty flat. Lately I've been bringing along a pair of X-strap black sandals. I don't like thongs because if it's really cold for some reason I'd like to wear my tights (those light grey ones or some black wool tights I have for ballet) and socks, so the shoes have to accept socks if necessary.

We brought our bikes to France because we knew we were going far enough it was worth it. We flew American and they did not charge us in either direction. I hear that's there new policy but I don't think that's what's on the website. We did pay extra to get a direct flight. I will update the post with what we did about the bike box issue...

cycler said...

Thanks for the update.
At first, I thought I had completely missed the part about transporting the bikes, and felt like a dummy, then I realized you'd updated it. I think we'd have to take his bike unless we went to Holland, he's just too tall to even find a bike in most bike stores (takes the largest standard size made- I think it's 63cm?

Charlotte said...

George A - I just added a photo of how the hooks attach the bag to the bike. I hope that helps? Let me know if you still have questions. I tried to find the original photo that inspired this system, it's out there on the internet somewhere...

Siocan said...

Cool post!
Had similar thoughts before my 4 day trip.

Greetings from the Swiss Alps

Velouria said...

Oh, wow! I just got back from... well, a miniature cyclotouring trip, and to my delight found this! Must process, but just wanted to say thank you!

Velouria said...

Thank you again for the exciting read! This is truly inspiring and gives me hope that my occasional 50 mile daytrips can turn into at least one 100 mile daytrip before the end of summer, and hopefully an overnight trip. My biggest problem right now is clothing issues and time, rather than fitness level. Hopefully, I will soon resolve both.

A couple of technical questions, if you have a moment:

Have you had any experience with handlebar bag set-ups? I have been considering installing a front rack and handlebar bag, as it seems so convenient for storage and for reading directions. But I notice that neither you nor your husband use these, and wonder whether there are problems with them I should consider.

The other thing - and pardon how dense I am in response to your previous attempts to give me directions - is that you had mentioned that you get to Maine via Lowell, MA. How exactly do you proceed once you are in Lowell (specific route number/ street name)?... I have looked at maps, but do not see any route that seems to stand out as the intuitive way to go.

Thanks in advance!

Anonymous said...

wow! that little quick release hack for the Carradice is brilliant!

Personally, I've never had a problem with storing my bike in a North American motel (and, ahem, usually without asking permission). It would be polite, of course, if you've been riding in inclement weather to wipe down one's drivetrain and tires so that you aren't dripping all over the room when you roll in, but if you're only there for a night or so, most caretakers don't know or care what's been in the room between housekeeping sweeps.

Personally, the only thing I'd add to the packing list is a very basic medical kit. Bug spray, burn cream (in case of misfortune with the suncreen), a few band-aids of varying size and shape, small ziplock of ibuprofen and antihistimine tablets should be sufficient. It's not the sort of thing that one uses regularly (hopefully) and may be negligible if you're touring somewhere that's civilized enough to have pharmacies in close proximity to each other. But such a packet doesn't take up too much space and is good to have just as a precaution.

Charlotte said...

Cris, that's a good call. We haven't had a need for burn cream, but we definitely have hit the Advil on occasion and on our last trip my husband dripped blood all over his frame from a tiny little cut in the nail bed of one finger - a bandaid would have come in useful!

Velouria, we don't use handlebar bags mostly because they're expensive and we knew we needed saddlebags no matter what so we just put the money there. I have that small re-purposed "camera bag" wallet I sometimes use up there. I'd sure love a nice handlebar bag but it hasn't happened yet.
As for route, we have experimented with several. I think my favorite is the fastest, though there are more cars - take 110/38 along the river. Stay on 110 through Lawrence and Haverhill. Take 108 to Exeter (make sure to get that turn right, it's not completely obvious) and from Exeter you can keep on 108 to loop into Maine or at the fork take a right towards Portsmouth on 33. I imagine from there you can take over, you know that area much better than I do. Some of these roads are better than others, I consider all of them "serviceable" but probably wouldn't take my mother on this route.
Have fun!

Anonymous said...

V - with regards to a front bag, I've used one for brevets and tours. Personally, I like having easy access to a camera, food and maps\cue-sheets; but I don't plan on using it for much else. Since that's a fairly light load, I've been able to manage with a small bag that's just strapped to the handlebars (Trek, VO Minnehaha). Yes it does affect handling somewhat if the bag isn't sitting on a front rack, but so long as you don't put too big of a load in the bag then the handling penalty is relatively manageable. And these handlebar bags are usually more affordable than their rack mounted counterparts.

An alternative, as an aside, is to store your food and camera in jersey or short pockets but this can be uncomfortable and awkward. I've also found that just keeping cue sheets or maps in my jersey pockets pretty much dooms them to a slow disintegration from sweat, weather and general clumsiness with folding and unfolding while riding.

If you want to put a bunch of other stuff up front, like cellphones and rain jackets and roast chickens, then a rack mounted bag, like the Acorn Boxy or Berthoud's line of randonneur bags, is more appropriate; but personally, I've been fine with dismounting when I need to use my phone or get to clothing layers (though, handy access to the roast chicken would be nice)

Charlotte said...

Cris, What is it about roast chicken and randonneuring? At the end of long rides I find myself fantasizing about roast chicken and swiss chard sautéed in my cast iron pan with raisins. Yes, it seems like I want protein and iron, but as a strict vegetarian for 15 years, only barely lapsed, I cannot fathom where the *specificity* of the roast chicken craving comes from.

Sitting at my desk today I have no desire for roast chicken. Maybe I should be out riding! :)

Anonymous said...

oh, for me, it dates back to when I first read about Harriet Fell's 1975 PBP where she wrote:

"The weekend before the big event, I packed my TA handlebar bag. I had a rain cape, two sewups, rim tape, spare batteries and bulbs, tools including a spoke wrench, freewheel remover, and a big adjustable wrench. I had glucose tablets, something like Gatorade powder, pâtes de fruits (fruit jellies), a kilo of prunes (to combat one of the problems during the 600 km brevet that I forgot to mention), and . . . a chicken, whole and roasted. "

On the Boston 600k, there's a general store near the NH border with Royalston -- 4 Corners. On the outbound leg, one'll usually hit it too early in the morning to make use of it; but on the return, it's at the top of a murderously long stair-step climb, so the store makes for a good place to stop and replenish one's strength. It also has a gloriously aromatic rotisserie that I must warn you against if you find your vegetarian faith lapsing.

I will say, however, that if my schedule works out that I get to do the 600k again next year, and if the route stays unchange, I am totally planning my stops and speed around hitting 4 corners at midday, so that I can ride into Gardner with a roast chicken in my handlebar bag.

Charlotte said...

Oh my! I'd forgotten about Harriet's chicken. Well Cris, I know what I should bring if I ever staff a control on one of your rides.

Though those cider donuts were more to my usual taste, thanks! :)

Anonymous said...

oh, sorry to comment-drip on this entry, but specific theories to the relationship between randonneuring and roast chicken impulses: I don't know what your definitions of comfort food are but I know that, for myself, the roast chicken has several advantages that allows it to inhabit this distinct niche of desire for me.

A properly roasted chicken satisfies one of the basic requirements of 'on-bike food' in that it can be devoured with one hand and without utensils but it doesn't immediately fall apart if left unattended in a bag that's travelling on a rough road (unlike, say, a sandwich).

It provides protein (which is useful over multi-hour exertions) and a bit of fat (that can be used as fuel over distance); but it doesn't have to be too rich (unlike, say, spareribs) and is thus easier to digest while riding.

It is acceptable both as a hot and/or tepid dish, so can be consumed across the span of hours (or even days).

The white meat/dark meat/wing/leg permutations provide variety and novelty during the consumption.

and it is one of the familiar dishes from my mother's repertoire, so provides emotional sustenance, as well.

... but you know, that's just me. And I realize that I may be a little bit particular about this one food item. But I'm fine with that.

Erik said...

Great post -- I am looking to do some short trips on a new bike and you are an inspiration for traveling light.

city girl rides said...

so awesome! i plan on a cyclotour next year on the california coast with my boyfriend. this is very handy information. thank you and i'll bookmark it!

Gary said...

Beautiful touring bike. I have never seen one of these over here in the UK but they look most desirable. Wonderful colour and chrome. I also use the Nelson set up and I must admit it works very. Thank you for such an informative post.Very inspiring!