If only we’d known

Last fall, we rode our bicycles cross-country. We began in Astoria, Ore., and against all odds reached the Atlantic Ocean in Charleston, S.C., three months later. Like all trips of this scale, ours was a twisting, unpredictable journey for which we could never have been fully prepared. That said, we could have been a lot more prepared than we were.

Buddies in the saddle: Friends and joke collectors Dan Ettinger, left, and Simon Goldberg passed through Asheville on their coast-to-coast ride. Photo By Kent Priestley

Sure, we hadn’t trained and we packed the night before we set out, but that’s probably the case for most other 20-somethings who head out for the Appalachian Trail or other such adventures on a whim. Still, as our moms never tire of reminding us, being in good company doesn’t make it right. So whether you’re biking cross-country, taking a weekend tour, or planning any other kind of road trip, the following 10 tips should be of help:

1) Pace
During most of our trip, we averaged 60 to 75 miles a day. Our total mileage for the whole ride was 3,824 (though according to MapQuest, it should have been 2,994 miles). We took 85 days to make the trip, including 24 days off. Time off the bike is a big part of the tour—don’t feel bad about slowing down.

2) Cost
Once you cover the startup costs—bicycling gear, camping equipment, train tickets, etc.—bicycle touring gets cheap. Sure, it may cost $1,500 to get to this point, but after that, the difference between a weekend bike trip and a three-month cross-country adventure is just the cost of food, lodging and a few inner tubes. By making it a point to cook for ourselves and not pay for camping, we kept our average down to about $9 per person per day.

3) Getting there
Although it’s tempting, bringing your bike on a plane is not a great idea. Oversize-luggage charges and the likelihood of your equipment getting damaged makes trusting the professionals at UPS a much better option.

If you don’t mind going slow (and if you’re doing a long-distance trip, you shouldn’t), another possibility is taking the train. Amtrak accepts oversize boxes (meaning you don’t have to fully disassemble your bike), and some lines even let you roll your bicycle right on board.

4) Routing around
We relied on AAA maps (free for all members), regional advice from bike shops, and local directions from gas-station attendants in determining our routes. In general, we found that roads marked “secondary route” on the map tended to be pretty good: low traffic volume, well-paved, not too windy. The Adventure Cycling Association also makes some excellent cross-country and regional route maps for those who prefer to plan ahead. Tip: In some Western states, bicycles are allowed on the interstate (a remarkably safe option due to the wide shoulders). Surf state Department of Transportation Web sites to find their respective regulations and request free maps.

5) City cycling
Whenever possible, avoid cities. The bigger the city, the more cars and trucks will be sharing the road with you. Even smaller cities, such as Asheville, can be hard to approach due to the limited access routes. You’ll probably be tempted to stop and visit some of those distant cities you’ve always wanted to see. Just be forewarned: You’ll almost certainly have to battle your way in and back out.

6) Free camping
If you don’t want to cough up $15 a night to stay at a private campground, the best place to start looking for camping advice is the local sheriff’s office. It’s great to get the folks who might kick you out of your improvised campsite back on your side of the nightstick. If you can’t find a cop, just start asking around—at the grocery store, the gas station, the bar, etc. We camped in a lot of city parks and playgrounds. Out West, we took advantage of the free camping offered on national-forest land (tents must be at least 200 feet away from paths and roads).

In a pinch, you can always try the old door-knock. Tip: If you’re approaching a stranger to ask about camping on their lawn, arrive well before dark with big smiles and a good explanation.

7) Eating out
Although we did most of our cooking in camp on a small gas stove, we also found creative ways to make hot meals during the day. While you should always ask first, gas stations and grocery stores are usually happy to share hot water from their coffeemakers—great for some quick oatmeal in the morning and ramen at lunch. Personal favorite: oatmeal with peaches and a nondairy coffee creamer. Mmmm.

8) Laundry
Good personal hygiene and clean biking clothes are integral to a comfortable ride. We tried to do laundry at least every few days, and more often when the weather was hot and sweaty. In most cases, this meant rinsing our spare outfit with a hose outside a gas station in the morning and bungeeing the quick-drying getups to the outside of our packs. During daytime breaks, we’d spread our laundry across our handlebars. By midafternoon, everything was usually dry. Tip: If your clothes are still a bit damp by nightfall, sleep with them in your sleeping bag. Come morning, they should be good to go.

9) Communication
Riding a few thousand miles with someone, you realize that solid communication is important—both on and off the bike. To keep ourselves safe on the road, we developed a set of easy-to-hear signals to alert each other to potential hazards. Instead of trying to make out exactly what the other person was saying, we merely had to recognize a previously agreed-upon call meaning “pull over,” “trouble ahead,” “car behind” etc.

Interpersonal communication is also vital. The increased stresses of the road require a proportional amount of patience, thoughtfulness and willingness to talk things out. Just as with your bicycle, commit yourself to keeping your friendship in good shape. Getting closure on an argument or misunderstanding feels as good as a freshly lubed chain.

10) Getting fit
While you might be able to get away without training before your trip, it’s essential to have your bike in shape. If you’re riding a new or borrowed rig, or if you’ve never been fitted before, it’s worth the hour, $90 or so, and the trip to a local bike shop. A properly fitted bike will greatly minimize the strain on your knees, back and neck.

So there you have it—thousands of miles of experience boiled down to 10 simple nuggets (some of which you might have figured out on your own). Of course, travelers, like magicians, are always a little reluctant to reveal their deepest secrets. So you’ll just have to get out there and discover your own.

[Dan Ettinger and Simon Goldberg are co-authors of the forthcoming book Joke Pedalers: A Cross-Country Bicycle Ride into the Heart of American Humor. To learn more about their ride across America, check their Web site: www.JokesAcrossAmerica.net]

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