The First in a Series of Posts About Past Tours
To celebrate turning 50 in 2003, I bought a touring bicycle and a full set of panniers, joined Adventure Cycling Association, and began learning about bicycle touring. By April of this year, I will have taken part in 20 cycling trips.
As I wait to embark on my next cycling adventures this spring, I thought I’d begin to look at them as a collection and consider different aspects of them and what I liked or didn’t.
The trips I’ve taken fall into three broad categories:
Self-Contained Tours—You carry everything you bring—clothes, biking and camping gear, food and supplies—on your bike in panniers (or tow it behind you in a trailer). You rely on yourself or fellow cyclists for support on the road; there is no roving “sag wagon” to assist you.
Fully Supported Tours—Scheduled, organized tours you pay to take part in. They vary greatly in nature, but they usually include mapped and marked routes, roving teams to assist with mechanical or other problems, luggage transport, meals, rest stops with snacks and beverages, camping facilities and amenities, and sometimes indoor sleeping spaces, such as school gyms. They can involve a few dozen to hundreds or thousands of riders.
Overnights—Short, informal trips planned and taken with friends. In my case, we used someone’s house or a motel as a home base and did daytrips in the surrounding region.
Adventure Cycling Association
Anyone interested in bicycle travel should know about Adventure Cycling Association (www.adventurecycling.org). Adventure Cycling describes itself as “North America’s premier nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring and empowering people to travel by bicycle.” That’s no exaggeration. Adventure Cycling is devoted to promoting and improving bicycle travel in all its forms, especially self-contained touring. A cornucopia of information and resources, Adventure Cycling also offers a diverse menu of organized tours, from guided self-contained tours to fully supported and van supported tours. They range from six-day regional tours to cross-country tours of two to three months.
I’ve gone on three self-contained Adventure Cycling tours, as well as one short solo self-contained tour. While all four tours involved riding a fully loaded bicycle, they varied in important ways and I got different things out of them.
Self-Contained Tours I’ve Taken
Camp, sweet camp: a typical campsite scene, somewhere along the Pacific Coast.
When I decided to get into bicycle touring, it was with idea of doing one long, challenging trip. What I eventually settled on was a month-long Adventure Cycling tour down the Pacific Coast from Bellingham, Washington, just south of the Canadian border, to San Francisco. This September marks the 10th anniversary of that trip. If you click on the “Then” tab on my homepage you can access two stories I wrote about it: “Cycling Beyond Your Comfort Zone” and “The Pies of September.”
To prepare for this ambitious undertaking, I bought a Trek 520 touring bike and went on three trips with it. The first was the big annual event tour Bike Florida (more on that in a future post) to experience traveling long distances by bicycle every day for a week. Then, to learn about self-contained touring, I enrolled in Adventure Cycling’s “Introduction to Road Touring,” an excellent learn-by-doing course for aspiring bicycle travelers. Finally, later that summer, I set out on my own on a three-day, self-contained ride down the 184.5-mile Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath in Maryland.
“Introduction to Road Touring”
My Trek 520 and me on my first self-contained tour.
The road touring course was based at a state park just south of Richmond, Virginia. There, the dozen of us enrolled in the course and our leader stayed in cabins for three days and discussed every aspect of self-contained bicycle travel, in particular Adventure Cycling’s approach to guided self-contained tours. Then we put what we learned into action and set out on a three-day tour. I wrote about that experience for Adventure Cyclist magazine. You can read about it here:
Adventure Cycling offers “Introduction to Road Touring” several times a year in locations across the country (this year in Maine, Virginia, Florida, Montana, and Oregon), and I highly recommend it. The course was great fun and, because it was the first time I’d traveled around on a fully loaded bicycle, quite an adventure for me. It very much whet my appetite for bicycle travel.
Meals on Wheels
One key aspect of Adventure Cycling self-contained tours we learned about and practiced was that organization’s approach to meals. Each day a different pair of cyclists is responsible for food shopping, cooking dinner in camp and cleaning up, and setting out food for the next day’s breakfast and lunch. Usually they empty their panniers after getting into camp and head out to a grocery store to pick up food. Sometimes, if shopping must be done before reaching camp, everyone rendezvouses at a store and carries some of the purchased groceries to the campground. Everyone pitches in each day to transport a share of the non-perishable food, supplies, and cooking gear.
In theory, this in an inexpensive, equitable, and even enjoyable way to approach meals when camping. Depending on the cook’s creativity and grocery availability, the meals can range from fairly basic to quite tasty. But sometimes certain people don’t pull their weight with cooking or cleanup. And if it’s your turn, it means devoting several hours to shopping and meal duties when you’d rather be doing something else. Fortunately, the commitment is only about once a week.
Still, it’s awfully nice to just visit a restaurant and have a delicious meal prepared and served to you, with no cleanup required. On my month-long Pacific Coast tour, the leader set aside a certain amount of “fun money” that the group could decide to spend on something special—kayaking, massages, or some other activity. We always chose to spend it on eating out. We also quickly fell into the habit of stopping at the first coffee shop or bakery we came across for a good cup of coffee and fresh baked goods. (I structured my story “The Pies of September” around these stops.) Obviously, we craved non-camping food.
On my Pacific Coast tour, I often felt I didn’t have enough time to play tourist, enjoy walks on the beach, or explore some of the places we passed through. I would like to have eaten out more, or perhaps broken up the camping with a motel stay now and then (which Adventure Cycling often does on long tours). We camped every night except two that we spent in hostels, once because there was no nearby campground and also on the final night of our trip. I had my best night’s sleep of the entire trip at that first hostel.
Cycling “Inn to Inn”
Since my Pacific Coast trip, Adventure Cycling has introduced self-contained “inn-to-inn” tours, a style of travel that independent bicycle tourists often refer to as “credit card tours.” Although the term “inn-to-inn” evokes cozy bed and breakfasts, these tours might better be described as motel-to-motel. Still, they are a welcome alternative. You transport your own gear but a lot less of it, because you don’t need to bring camping gear. You share a room (or pay extra if you prefer not to) and eat out. The tour guides take care of paying for everything and supplying food to pack for on-the-road lunches.
The view from my balcony at a motel on the Outer Banks. The beach was only a boardwalk away.
A couple of years ago, I sampled this style of touring on Adventure Cycling’s “Outer Banks Inn-to-Inn” tour, a week-long loop trip that circled from mainland North Carolina to the offshore Outer Banks and back. Besides the obvious pleasures of staying indoors and eating out, I also appreciated all the time saved in not having to deal with setting up and breaking down camp and helping with food shopping and meals.
Going It Alone
The start of my C&O Canal trip.
Only one of my first 20 bike trips has been a self-contained tour I planned and carried out on my own. That probably says a lot about the limits of my adventurous spirit. I love to plan and dream about trips, but I’m not very good at actually following through with the plan or dream.
Still, that one trip on my own, a three-day ride along the C&O Canal, remains one of my proudest achievements on a bicycle and one of my favorite trips. After being dropped off at Cumberland, Maryland, I was off road on the flat canal towpath for nearly the entire trip, with the exception of side trips I chose to take and a six-mile detour on country roads. There were primitive campsites conveniently situated along the towpath about every five miles, and several towns along the way. It was about the safest, most carefree self-contained bike tour I could possibly have undertaken. But for me, it was still a daring adventure.
Although I was prepared to eat meals in camp, among my favorite moments on that trip were breakfast at Weaver’s Restaurant and Bakery in Hancock, Maryland, and a well-deserved dinner and beer at a restaurant in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, on my second and last night.
The end of my C&O Canal trip.
The only downside of the trip was that I had no one to share the experience with along the way until the last few miles. Other than on side trips to towns and other attractions, for the first two days I saw hardly anyone on the trail. I camped alone, ate alone, enjoyed discoveries alone. If the trip had gone on more than three days, I probably would have started feeling lonely.
To Summarize . . .
The Pacific Coast tour was the most difficult and demanding bicycle trip I’ve ever taken—and the one I’m most proud of. But I’m not sure whether I’ll take such a long trip of that style again. While I may choose to do another challenging trip someday, I’d prefer mixing camping with lodging, and eating out more than preparing meals in camp.
While I’d like to do another solo trip of two or three days, companionship makes a trip more enjoyable. The cycling friends I’ve made are not as interested in self-contained touring, so if I do other such trips in the future, I’ll probably turn to guided tours by Adventure Cycling or another organization. Another inn-to-inn type of tour might interest me.
Since that Pacific Coast tour, I’ve taken bicycle trips more for pleasure than challenge, so all of them in recent years have been supported tours or overnights with friends. But who knows? Every now and then the idea of doing a big, challenging trip starts to feel appealing again. You never know where your daydreams will lead you.
David Romanowski, 2016