A Beginners Guide to Biking Great Distances
Last winter I decided to challange myself in a way I never had before. The goal was to travel from Ontario to Nova Scotia on a pedal bike with my friend Natasha, camping along the way and visiting friends and family we hadn't seen in ages. We planned to do the trip completely unsupported and to be as self-sufficient as possible. This meant carrying all of our clothes, tools, spare parts, cooking gear, tent and camping equiptment on our bikes.
You would think with 6 months time for preparation, I would of picked out a bike, started training, and looked into which routes were the safest and most convenient... then clearly, you don't know me very well haha. I actually received my bike, rack and panniers one full week before flying into Ontario to start the trip. Having about 4 hours total riding time on my brand new bike, I jumped right in, relying heavily on my mountain biking background (at least I knew how to ride a bike, right?) and the patience of Natasha to show me the ropes.
So this post is coming from a girl who knew absolutely nothing about touring, hopped on her brand new cross cycle bike, and learned the hard way through experience rather than practice. In total we made it through 5 provinces and 1 state, cycling 2,281KM from Burketon, Ontario, through Maine and P.E.I., all the way to Sydney, Nova Scotia. And although I'm still learning more about this sport everyday, I figured maybe you could learn from a few of my mistakes and I could begin to prepare you for first touring trip.
TIPS, THINGS I LEARNED, & WHAT TO EXPECT:
You're going to be pushed to your limits. Everyday you are baring all the elements, being patient with impatient vehicles, trying to remain optimistic on unpleasant hill climbs by telling yourself "at least this hill isn't as steep, or long, or bumpy as the last" - usually with only 5 lousy hours of sleep. Its true that a journey like this will test your physical capibilities, but even more so, its going to test your mental grit. Because it takes a special kind of crazy to wake up hot and dehydrated in a tent every morning, eat your tasteless oatmeal at breakfast while deciding if you have the energy for a long 140KM push, or if you'd rather a short 70KM ride instead. All while navigating through busy cities desperately in search of your next coffee, obsessing over the wind dirrection, and wondering if you're actually going to be able to find a shower that night.
The first 3 days are the worst. Like I mentioned before, touring was brand new to me and I had never ridden a bike with so much weight on the back tire before. The weight throws your balance completely off, making every pedal, slight decent, and corner feel so unnatural. To make things worse, this was the very first time I had ever actually used clipless pedals. Day 1 was a huge learning day, figuring out how to clip in and out of my bike, trying to understand the most basic rules of the road for cyclists, and re-learning how to ride my bike with an excessive amount of weight on the back.
During days 2 and 3, I've never been in so much pain in my life. Head to toe there wasn't something that didn't hurt. I'd love to tell you that the pain gets sooo much better as the trip goes on. The truth is, it gets a little bit better as your body adjusts, but when you really get down to it, you just get used to suffering. Advil will become your best friend.
Strangers are going to want to help you. Let them. And when it comes your turn to help someone else out, make sure to pass that kindness along. As it turns out, the biking community is so much bigger than I thought it was. People were pulling over on the highway to help us fix a flat tire; rushing home to find us that one bolt that was missing on our bikes; starting conversation out of pure curiosity and ended up bringing two strays back to their house for a good meal and a warm bed. Why? Simply because they thought what we were doing was awesome. And when you think about it, I guess it really was awesome. Oh, and make sure to sign up with Warm Showers before you leave!
Realize that less is more. Touring is simple living. The less you own, the less you have to carry half way across the country. Unless its going to keep you warm, feed you, or fix your bike, you probably don't need it. And if you're up to the challenge, try doing the trip completely unplugged. No texting, no social media. I bet you'll feel even more refreshed by the end of your trip.
Slow and steady will win the race. This is something I completely understood from the very beginning. But it was something that Natasha really struggled with (I think its from her crazy runners mindset she developed in Track at University haha). Eventually she got on the same page as me and we had a great time. This is your trip, go at a comfortable pace and really enjoy each day. It doesn't matter how fast you get there, just as long as you make it. Leave early in the day and stop to have a good break every 20KM - 40KM (1-3 hours). If you do this, it just feels like you're on a little bike ride... kinda.
Hungry? Again? Coffee and carbs become LIFE. Accept it, embrace it. Never again will you be able to eat as much as you want at every meal without feeling guilty. Make sure to pack a couple (or 7) emergency granola bars. Also have energy gels and water electrolyte tabs readily available for when you feel like you're burning out.
Send yourself self care packages. We had one sent to a house that we knew we would be staying at for 3 days. I've honestly never been so happy to see body lotion and a hair mask. Its funny how all the little things you would regularly take for granted can suddenly mean the world to you, a warm shower is a good example of this. Treat yourself, you've earned it.
Plan your trip, but give yourself more time than you think you need. Things like mechanical issues, getting weathered out, and illness are all possibilities. Sometimes we were simply just too tired to continue forward; and that was totally okay.
Things to think about while planning:
Plan Ahead - If you use the cycling option on Google Maps, it will give you a good idea of which roads, highways and bridges are biker friendly. There are also apps like Bikemap, that will help you plan a route.
Distance - On the tough, rainy days with countless hill climbs, we'd only bike about 60KM. On the days with tail wind and flat terrain, we'd bike over 140KM. Usually this took us all day, leaving mid-morning and arriving at our destination just in time for dinner (with plenty of breaks in-between). So while planning your trip on a map, aiming for about 100KM a day will probably be a good start and might average out for you too.
Road Terrain - Consider roads that have large shoulders, the type of traffic (minimal transport trucks), elevation gain and loss, busyness, and the remoteness of the location.
Campgrounds - We found it more useful to plan our trip from campground to campground, rather than from one city to the next. This is because the campgrounds are often on the outskirts of the cities. So you may of made it to that city, but now you have to bike an extra 15KM to the nearest campground. I know it doesn't sound like much now, but at the end of a big 120KM day, that extra 15KM might actually be the thing that throws you off your rocker.
A Bike - I'm laughing that I'm actually writing this, but most importantly (and obviously) you'll need a bicycle. After tons of research, I decided to go with the Norco Search. A cycle cross/adventure bike, that is light and durable. It's designed to go pretty fast on both paved and dirt roads. While looking at bikes, think of how you would like to use the bike after your trip is done. I live in the mountains, theres a high chance that I won't always stick to pavement and I'll wonder onto an old back road from time to time. And as a bonus, this thought process actually came in handy during our trip when we hit gravel roads... or when the highway traffic got too close to me, forcing me onto the dirt shoulder. Hey, it happens.
Put a solid effort into looking at bikes during the off season or look at last years model during the on season. I've always done this with my bikes and I've found some pretty great deals, sometimes saving over $1000 at a time. Its really worth it.
Rack and Pannier Set - A rack will attach to either the front or back of your bike, and a set of panniers will clip onto it. Its much more comfortable and convenient to carry all your gear on your bike and not on your back. Fortunately, we both packed light enough that we each only needed two 45L back panniers. We both used the brand Axiom and were totally thrilled with how it preformed. The rack is light, but sturdy and the bags are roomy and completely waterproof (trust me, we hit some pretty nasty storms).
A Fitted Seat - And I really mean it. Even after the 4 training hours on the seat that came with my (male specific) bike, my butt was already so sore. I couldn't imagine riding double that distance everyday for a full month. So Natasha booked an appointment at a bike shop for me and they measured my saddle width. This measurement helped us pick out a seat that would properly support my sit bones, allowing them to sit completely flat. I also got a seat particularly designed for females. What a life saver! More cushion for my the tush and designed to relive pressure on your, urm, soft tissue.
While you're at the shop, you may was well ask them to make sure your bike is set up correctly (particularly the height of your new seat). There are so many small adjustments you can make to ensure that you're riding just a little more comfortably. Unfortunately, these adjustments are usually based on trail and error as you're riding. But its really nice to have a solid base from a knowledgeable staff member before starting your trip!
Clipless Pedals - Yes, they take some getting used to, but its so much more efficient and comfortable. Not only are you pushing down, but now you're also pulling up. Need I say more? Not to mention that your foot will always sit comfortably on that sweet spot on your pedal. You're always locked in and ready to go. You'll get used to twisting your ankle to break free of the pedal. And don't worry, everyone will experience the embarrassing, slow motion, sideways fall at your first stop sign or at the top of a long hill. It hurts your pride more than your body.
Biking Shoes - Keep in mind that when you're looking for new cycling shoes they will have to fit correctly with your pedals. There are many different styles out there.
But on a trip like this, you want to minimize the number of items that you bring with you. That is why I purchased the Pearl Izumi X-Road Fuel Shoes. Unlike normal cycling shoes, these are more of a running shoe style with laces. Which came in handy when Natasha and I wanted to go on a hike or explore off our bikes, because it meant I didn't have to bring both cycling shoes and hiking/running shoes on the trip with me. It was a two in one purchase and I was really happy with them. TIP: Make sure to actually break your shoes before the trip. I had a 4 day period where my feet hurt more than anything on my body and it was because I hadn't taken the time to wear in my new shoes.
Padded Shorts - You can cheap out on everything else if you want, but please do some research and invest in a good pair of padded riding shorts, and as a bonus, you'll feel incredibly sexy in them. You can thank me later.
I used Alé bibbed shorts and although a little worn out near the end, they preformed really well for me. Make sure to buy two pairs so you can alternate between washes and so that you can double up on those extra sore days.
Handle Bar Case - A place for your gels, tabs, credit cards and cell phone. Mine acted as my wallet on my trip and was so helpful. Before leaving I got The SP Connect Wedge Case. With a simple twist, the case is off your bike and in your hands. You can also buy an adhesive piece that will stick to the back of any cell phone case (preferably waterproof). The entire system mounts right on top of your bike stem, so road directions and music are conveniently right in front of you and handsfree.
A Bright Helmet - Distracted drivers rarely notice bikers. As a rule, I always just pretended that every car I encountered was unable to see me. This rule actually saved me from getting into a couple minor accidents.
Anything in bright, florescent colours is great idea when you're on the road - think of this while buying jerseys and rain jackets. But the one thing you always put on every single day is your helmet. Mine was lime green and I had a few people mention that it was the first thing they spotted from quite the distance away. Wearing a (bright) helmet could save your life 😉
Spare Tube, Patch Kit & Tools - We always had 2 tubes and 1 spare foldable tire between the two of us. At one point on our trip Natasha got 3 flats in 24 hours - she went through both tubes, one patch kit and our only spare tire. A little preparation will make those undesirable moments just a little more bearable - its all part of the adventure.
Baby Wipes - They can be used for everything. With layer upon layer of sunscreen, sweat and dirt on your skin, it's nice to freshen up. You're not always going to find a shower either, so have a wet wipe bath instead! Not near as satisfying, but its better than nothing and you'll be grateful at the time.
Packing Cubes - Because at the end of a long, strenuous day, the first thing you'll want to do is put on your comfy sweat pants and relax... but you can't because your bags are a mess, and you're a mess, and your life a mess and you'll wish you were organized. Compressible packing cubes to the rescue! I managed to fit all my clothes for an entire month into 1 large and 1 small packing cube. Now you know where everything is AND you have all this extra room in your bag!
Lush Bar - Lush Cosmetics has a number of awesome shampoo bars that are about the size of your palm. Although primarily used to wash your hair, we learned that it can double as a body wash as well. Super handy, super compact and made with natural ingredients. Win win win.
I know its sounds really broad, but overall, the trip felt very cleansing. Its just you and your thoughts for a minimum of 6 hours every single day. Thats a lot of time to think of the good, deal with the bad and everything in-between. This trip gave me a chance to slow things down so I could think and reflect on life, which is something we don't do often enough. I found some answers I was looking for, I realized what was and wasn't important, and I received some clarity after a really tough winter. All while taking in some pretty incredible views, living on an endorphin high, and being a total badass. Really, it was the best therapy out there for me.
2,281 Kilometres, 23 Songs On Repeat, 5 Provinces, 3 Mental Breakdowns, 1 American State and 0 Training Days.
Set your mind and the body will follow, friends.