How to Ride a Long Bike Tour
Take off the cycle touring training wheels with tips from a veteran guide
It was the summer of ’76, America’s bicentennial, when 4,100 cyclists took to the streets and highways to celebrate independence by riding from Virginia to Oregon. The event—Bikecentennial—was a seminal moment in bike history that led to the establishment of the TransAmerica cross-county cycling route.
Now, almost four decades later, bike touring is once again surging in popularity. And it’s easy to see why. It’s fun. It’s healthy. It’s a great way to explore the country and “discover yourself,” Eat Pray Love-style, on the cheap. Read some of these bike-touring journals from all over the world if you’re not sure you’re into it yet.
So now you’re convinced that riding across the state—or country—is what you should do with the rest of your summer. As a celebration of America, of course, and not just because you need an epic adventure narrative to pass on to your eventual grandkids. Here are a few tips and resources for exploring the nation by bike:
First, there are several ways to travel long distances by bicycle, but the most legitimate way is self-supported: Camping, and carrying all your gear in panniers or a trailer. We're not going to judge anyone who chooses to travel with a support vehicle and stay at hotels, but realize that you are running the risk of limiting your exposure to adventures, folksy locals and important life lessons about raccoons.
Give yourself a couple of months, and you can go almost anywhere in the country on your own power. Most bike tourists ride about 60-75 miles a day, but it’s up to you and your scheduled vacation time—the slower you go, the more you’ll likely get to see.
Here are some thoughts on the great trailer vs. panniers debate. This continues to be one of the more heated, controversial issues in bike touring (if that gives you any idea of how laidback bike touring can be).
Now it’s time to pick your route. Canada to Mexico, Virginia to Oregon, San Diego Comic Convention to your grandma’s house in Florida—you probably already know your general trajectory, but knowing the actual roads to take is a bit trickier. There are a number of ways to choose a specific route, and I recommend the easiest: Choose one that’s already well worn and pre-designated for biking. Adventure Cycling Association—the nonprofit bike travel org that grew out of Bikecentennial—sells some pretty great maps of major routes all over the U.S. Conversely, you could make your own route using Googlemaps bike directions or the United States Bicycle Route System.
What to Take
I’ve certainly just dumped everything I owned into as many bags as I could fit on a bike, using an elaborate system of bungee cords to batten it all down, but the end result was that I looked like a wandering transient with bread bags dangling precariously close to my rear wheel and a kitchen-full of pots and pans rattling out my arrival in every town. You’ll be a lot happier if you can keep it as light as possible. Here’s a packing list, and here’s an ultra lightweight summer packing list, and here's a really exhaustive packing list, if that’s what you’re looking for. Deciding what to pack can be harder than breaking in a Brooks saddle, but just remember that you can always mail gear home or buy stuff along the way.
All the planning in the world won’t do much if you’re not in shape before you start your tour. Sure, you could “ride your way into shape” on tour, but I’ve seen it happen, and it ain’t pretty. Do you really want to spend your vacation in agony when you could be enjoying the quiet beauty of comfortably cranking through a snow-capped mountain pass? I recommend a little preparation months in advance.
Here are some training plans for beginners, intermediate and advanced tourists. Or you could just aim to increase daily mileage, ride as often as you can during the week, and take one long ride—50 miles or more—each weekend. As you grow closer to your departure date, add your panniers or trailer during training so you get used to the weight. "You train for the tour or the tour trains you," goes the saying. Choose wisely.
Where to Stay
You could always wing it and take the “any port in a storm” stealth camping route, but if you’d rather do some planning, here are the most important resources you’ll need to find shelter.
Adventure Cycling Maps: ACA maps have lists of accommodations in every town you’ll pass through on an ACA route, including hotels, bike hostels, campsites and free camping at city parks.
Local Sheriff’s Office: Many small towns will let you pitch a tent for a night or two in the city park for free. It’s best to give the sheriff’s office a call and let them know what you’re up to first. This is more common on well-worn bike routes.
Warm Showers: This is a site that allows bike tourists to connect with kind souls willing to host dirty, smelly bike tourists. Make a profile, and contact people along your route for new friends and free hospitality.
Local Maps: State maps will generally include forest campsites, but they often don’t include commercial campsites and glittering RV parks with tent camping and top-notch shower facilities for a bargain rate. Check out this map by state and call ahead to make sure tents are allowed.
Solo vs. Group
If you don’t want to go it alone but can’t find anyone with the interest or schedule to join you, here’s an online forum to find touring companions. There are also a number of companies that offer organized tours, which is another great way to link up with buddies, if you’re willing to pay for it.
Where to find other resources:
Crazy Guy on a Bike: Journals, forums and packing lists
Adventure Cycling Association: Maps, tools and resources
Bicycle Universe: Tips and training info
Bicycle Touring Pro: Articles, photos and tales from the road
Caitlin Giddings spent three years leading cross-country cycling tours.