In July, LisaB and I did our first self-supported bike tour. The following is a description of our preparations.
We started with a destination. Lisa had a high school reunion in Doylestown, PA. It also happened to be within a few days of my Grandmother’s birthday (she lives in Wilmington, DE).
First we considered doing a tour through central Pennsylvania, but we weren’t keen on flying round trip with touring bikes. The airlines have discovered they can extract lots of revenue from cyclists to make up for their losses… on things like golf clubs. So we decided to see how far north we’d need to go on Amtrak to give us a doable week of riding to our destination. After looking at the Adventure Cycling map offerings, we decided on Richmond, VA. We ordered the Atlantic Coast Section 3 map and booked a train ticket. Because of the family activities, my parents would be driving up from Florida, so we arranged to have them cart the bikes back home—saving the airline hassles and costs entirely.
The AC map was a useful route tool, but not something I’d want to follow while riding. We decided to draw the route in MapMyRide.
Tip: MapMyRide creates maps and cue sheets as well as a GPX file for the Garmin (more on navigation later).
As we attempted to break the ride into day-sized mileage, we discovered our first challenge. There’s almost nothing near the route between Richmond and Fredricksburg. After Ashland (about 15 miles from the train station), there are no towns and no hotels. We had decided we wouldn’t camp on our first self-supported trip. Neither of us have much interest in camping in the humid East Coast summer. Princess Lisa thinks camping is slow room service at the Ritz.
Tip: When looking for places to stay, Google Maps is a handy start — zoom in on the area you want, type “hotels” or “bed & breakfast,” the pins will pop up on the map. As you scroll to a new area, new pins pop up.
The first accommodation between Ashland and Fredricksburg turned out to be a B&B in the middle of nowhere—55 miles from the Amtrak station. We knew that would be a tough day since the train would not arrive until 12:30PM, but we had little choice. Staying in Ashland would mess up our timing because there is 55 miles of nothing between Fredricksburg and the next patch of civilization.
At this stage we didn’t have full grasp of appropriate distances with loaded touring bikes (55 miles is an easy morning club ride on a road bike), but I had a vague uneasy feeling about it.
Lesson 1. Unless you plan to wing it and camp wherever you can pitch a tent, order the maps and figure out where you’re staying before buying the train ticket.
Breaking up the route continued to be quite the exercise in creativity. We didn’t have much choice but to make day two a 70-miler. Covering that distance allowed us two short-mileage days to recover and sight-see as we wandered through the DC area.
I wanted to visit a high school friend in Baltimore, so we went off the AC route in DC. Allen Muchnick of the VA Bicycling Federation gave me a link to a club route from DC to BWI which took us exactly where we needed to go. It also allowed us to use the Metro for part of the trip — I was interested in exploring that with the bike (being transit-deprived here in Orlando).
From Baltimore, we used another transit option. The “light rail” (more on that later) actually covered enough miles to allow us to structure the trip this way. It took us all the way through Baltimore to Hunt Valley, MD. From there we could ride a few miles to rejoin the AC route. We would leave the route again in Lancaster County and use PA routes “S” and “L,” plus some improv, to make our way to Casa Schubert in Coopersburg.
The accommodation challenges met us again in Southern PA, making for two more long-mile days.
Lesson 2. Sixty miles on steep terrain with a loaded bike makes for a long, grueling day with little opportunity to relax and sight-see.
I never thought of 60 miles as being a long ride day. It’s a relatively short day on a SAGged tour. But with a 75lb bike and relentless, steep hills, riding stopped being enjoyable after about 40 miles and became a chore. The pressure to keep moving made it difficult to relax and detour off the route for sightseeing opportunities. My hammerhead days are behind me, what I really want to do is relax and mosey. Which we did, but the days were long on the road and deprived us of relaxed evenings. It might have helped if I had done some actual training for this, but alas, I cannot make myself do long training rides in the Florida summer.
Outfitting the Bike
I bought the Surly last year with touring in mind. I already had the racks (JANDD Expedition and Low Front), but my only panniers were Trek grocery bags. Lisa and I both needed touring panniers and handlebar bags. We settled on Arkel GT54 panniers and matching Big Bar Bag. Lisa bought a matching Arkel trunk. Despite the risk of drawing attention from the fashion police, I refuse to buy yet another trunk. If I needed a trunk, I’d use my JANDD trunk (not in the photo).
I took the bike over to Retro to see what kind of mount we could come up with. I was thinking of mounting it on the front rack, Dano came up with the mount shown on the right. It worked great!
Another problem. The center-mounted kickstand wasn’t cutting it. It never was much good, but it definitely was not going to work for this trip. Orange Cycle set me up with the Cannondale kickstand they put the on police bikes. What an improvement! In addition to being stable with a lot of weight, I can move the bike backwards with the stand down and not trap the pedal.
The Surly was rock solid and I was happy with the whole set-up. I really like all the outside pockets on the GT54s, they’re excellent for organizing things you want quick access to — tools, hand towel, sunscreen, etc.
When you have to haul your own stuff, don’t pack like a girl!
I’m a pretty good packer. I managed a single carry-on for a 3-week trip in Greece — and that included a mask & snorkel, skin suit, 35mm camera and 2 lenses, in addition to clothing.
But there’s size. And then there’s weight.
I packed 3 days worth of bike clothes, plus rain gear. I needed regular clothes for the 3 days I’d be with my family, so I packed a little more non-bike clothes than I normally would. I wore all but 3 of the items I packed, but could have easily done without more of them (probably a pound and a half worth).
Lesson 3. Don’t get suckered by vacuum space bags. Remember, it doesn’t weigh any less just because it’s taking less space.
I love space bags because they allow me to sort and pack efficiently. The problem with space efficiency is that resulting emptiness beacons for more stuff. I didn’t go way overboard, but I definitely got sucked into adding a few things that were not on the list. I got a little carried away with tools. I could have taken smaller/lighter ones and I could have done without a few of them. In a fit of paranoia (or something) I threw an extra cable lock in there. That was a pound and a half of dead weight I never even looked at. We both took small U-locks—which Mr. Schubert snorted at, but we used them in several situations where I would have been uncomfortable with a lesser lock.
I was essentially finished packing when the Princess showed up with her (bulging) panniers. She who was supposed to mail her reunion clothes to PA, decided to go for bragging rights (or something). There was no room for her tools and tire stuff. I already had my panniers organized with items where I wanted them, so I decided to add the trunk. The big, empty trunk. Yes, it would be good to have some empty space for acquired items. But.
As long as I was taking the trunk, well, it would be really nice to have the tripod—2lbs—never used it. And lube, which I never used. And a couple other little things that might come in handy, but didn’t.
Lessons learned. After examining what I took and what I needed, I could have done without 5-7lbs of stuff. I wasn’t focused on weight. I figured heavy is heavy, what’s a pound or two? But it’s significant on a long, 9% grade. And probably on a short, 18% grade, too. It’s also significant for load distribution. The Surly was totally fine with all the weight in the rear. Lisa’s Trek, not so much (more on that later).
It is good to know I can jettison unnecessary stuff and add camping gear for my next trip and the bike won’t be too much heavier. 🙂
Coming Soon: Train travel, riding the route, taking transit, meeting people… and a photo album (I promise)