Monday, February 25, 2008

Cycle Touring and the Spriit of Adventure

Over and over again, whenever I tour by bicycle, I run into people who tell me, "You're supposed to have a SAG wagon follow you so you don't have to carry your own luggage." In fact, there was a time in Colorado when touring by ourselves when we ran into cyclists who couldn't get their heads around the fact that we weren't touring with a car! This is my attempt to explain what we do and why.






Fully loaded touringCredit card tour



The two have very little to do with each other, even if you call it all "loaded touring." One is not harder than the other (in fact, the credit card tours are frequently much tougher, because having a reduced load lets you do unpaved roads, hiking trails and carry your bike over electrified fences because you can:

I think the biggest difference isn't with how you carry your luggage, but with the spirit that accompanies the trip. When Lisa & I announced that we were going to do a tour of the South Africa, my friends responded with: "Cool! Wish I could go with you." Her friends responded with: "You're going to be eaten by lions and tigers!" The difference between the two attitudes is key --- folks who express the latter sentiment will be extremely unhappy on one of our trips, and folks who express the former sentiment will be frustrated at being given a schedule and told what to do, because we remember that from being in school and didn't enjoy it. We weren't carrying camping gear on that trip, and stayed mostly on paved roads. At one point, however, to avoid a known nasty section of road, we rode into the middle of town to hire and hitch a ride on a so-called "black taxi." When we were dropped off at the destination, it was 5pm on a Sunday and we rode a block towards the tourist information center before we got a flat. While I fixed the flat, an old gentlement wearing a "Viagra Test Subject" T-shirt came up to us and asked us where we were going. We were wary at first, but he proved to be friendly and helpful, showing us a local B&B since the local tourist information was closed. It was a wonderful experience and Lisa enjoyed every moment of it, including the wonderment of our hosts when we told them we had arrived via a "black taxi", which they wouldn't have dared to take.

That trip clinched Lisa's attitude towards cycle touring --- we would ride into a farm where we were staying, and dogs, the hostess, her sons would dash out to greet us, having never seen a tandem before. We would stop at a gas station to buy ice cream, and the local kids would run up to the back of our bike, count the gears, and run away, screaming: "9! 9!" They had never seen a 9-speed before. At no point were we in danger of being eaten by lions and tigers, and at every point our choices were entirely ours to make --- to stay at this lovely place a second day, or to push forward to the next delight. Sure, there were a few hard days, but no worse than what we found on any other tours.

A few years later, we did our first fully-SAGed tour, the Bicycle Tour of Colorado. It's a very well-organized tour and the route was enjoyable, going over Trail Ridge road and visiting several high passes. The support was great --- in Colorado, there are lots of places where you have 50 miles or so between water, and we brought along our four-person luxury tent for the two of us. But a couple of incidences highlighted that the SAG was not without cost. First, there was a day when I woke up with a stiff neck from sleeping wrong the night before. On a self-supported tour, we would have either elected to wait out the stiff neck, or do only a short ride that day. Being a fully scheduled tour, the BTC had scheduled that day for 100 miles of riding. So I ended up riding 100 miles without the ability to really turn my head. (The alternative was to ride the SAG, which wouldn't have been as pretty) Then, there was a day when we climbed trail ridge road without proper acclimation, because with 2000 people on the tour or so, there were only certain days available for riding the road. By ourselves, we would have been able to ride the road whenever we wanted to.

At the end of the BTC, it was with relief, not with a sense of burden, when we put panniers on our bike and headed off for another week of touring around Colorado. Lisa was much happier with this trip, because now we were setting our own schedule, choosing where to stay, and while our tent was comfy, staying at hotels didn't cost any more than the BTC was costing us, but gave us plenty of choices as to where to go.

One more example: in 2005, Mike and I rode over Col D'Izoard into a tiny village called Le Rauffes. There, we found the most delightful country Gite you could imagine. At 5:30pm, I asked the owner, Thierry, when dinner was served. He said: "I closed the restaurant 6 months ago. You'd have to go down to Embrun to eat." Embrun was down the mountain, 1000' down, and the prospect of climbing after dinner didn't appeal to me, so I asked him if there were other places to eat. Thierry looked at me, and said, "Oh, you arrive by bicycles. I make something for you." And he proceeded to make us the best meal of the trip (and I have high standards for food). If we had showed up as part of a supported/SAG'd group, he'd have told us to go down the mountain. There are lots of other examples like this throughout my trip reports, and in Gary Erickson's book.

Yes, there is a cost: you must carry your own stuff (but it doesn't have to be very much stuff --- less is more, and Gary Erickson's book tells you how). You can't be cocooned and speak only English --- but the point of traveling is to meet new people and be part of the local culture. You might have to backtrack a town on occasion to find a place to sleep. But the rewards are amazing --- folks like Jobst Brandt (who's over 70) have done it for over 40 years and go back over and over --- and believe me, having stayed at the hotels he's stayed at, and eaten at some of the restaurants he's recommended --- it's not "roughing it" in any way, shape or form, despite the extremely low cost, compared to the fully supported tours. Galen Rowell wrote a column in Outdoor Photographer called The Hello Factor. In which, he explained how you knew you were on an adventure: if people you ran into who were doing the same thing said "hello," you were having an adventure. In that respect, every self-supported cycle tour is an adventure.
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