I keep putting off this post, probably afraid I’ll keep thinking of things to add to it after I publish it, but at some point we all just need to pull the trigger.
Anyway, it should hardly be surprising that I learned a lot over 6 weeks of flying by the seat of my pants (or riding by the seat of my pants, but that’s a bit too literal and not as catchy), so I’ve tried to compile a bunch of my thoughts here.
On Geography and People
- The US is big. So is Canada. When you think about it, it’s pretty crazy that just two countries occupy the bulk of the North American land mass. Even flying coast-to-coast takes 6 hours, and driving takes 6 days, so it’s not that surprising that biking it takes 6 weeks. Still, there were a number of days when I felt like I wasn’t making much progress when I considered things in the context of getting across the continent. Like, how is it 150 miles (and therefore 2 days’ ride) from Minneapolis to La Crosse? I didn’t expect to be following the Mississippi for so long.
- We are really lucky to have freedom of movement. Related to the last point, there are a lot of parts of the world where doing a long bike ride freely like this would be impossible, whether because of unfriendly borders or because of controlled movement within a country. For the most part, I could go days without anyone asking me to show identification. We generally take that for granted, but it’s still impressive. Likewise in Canada, apart from crossing the border itself, I never had to show anyone ID.
- We are also really lucky to have potable tap water. 99% of the US population has access to potable tap water. Likewise in Canada. It ought to be 100%, and in some places the tap water doesn’t taste that great, but it’s still safe to drink. When you’re drinking gallons of water each day, it really makes a difference if you can just fill up your containers in any sink, compared to if you have to always buy bottled water. In most of the world you’d have to make sure to stock up on bottled water if you were doing a ride like this, and you probably couldn’t get clean ice to cool down your water either.
- The US and Canada aren’t that different, all things considered. This was my first time really exploring the Canadian countryside at length. Most Americans who go to Canada just visit the major cities and then mentally wind up comparing urban Canada to the entirety of the US. But really, the Canadian countryside isn’t that different from the American countryside. As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, lots of pickup trucks and flags on lawns either way. Suburban sprawl as you get closer to cities. Ontario had some of the worst roads I biked on in any area where the towns were still close together, and that’s saying something considering the US doesn’t exactly have pristine infrastructure. The metric system was probably the most glaring difference, and I really wish they’d scrap it over there and go back to miles and Fahrenheit, but oh well.
- The Christian Left is a thing. So is the Patriotic Left. My warmshowers host in St. Cloud, MN was wearing a “Jesus is Lord” t-shirt and had lots of Christian-themed decorations around his house. He also had a lawn sign in a language I didn’t understand. I asked him what the lawn sign was, and he said it was a sign in Somali welcoming Somali refugees to the neighborhood. Meanwhile, in rural Upstate New York, I saw a house proudly flying the American flag on their lawn, with the rainbow flag right below it. Never draw inferences about someone’s politics just because they’re devoutly Christian or because they’re flying a flag on their lawn.
- People are generally nice. I’ll go back to the caveat I gave back in Montana, that I almost certainly had an easier time talking to people as a white man biking solo than I would have had if I had been traveling solo as a different race or gender. But basically everyone I had verbal interactions with was friendly, even if they weren’t necessarily people I’d want to discuss religion or politics with. And most people were more than happy to tell me about their local area, whether it was a matter of road conditions or local history or local culture or whatever. I really think hate is a learned behavior and often the result of people not being used to interacting with other people who are different from themselves; people being nice to each other is default behavior. On a similar note, it’s nice to see how cheery people get if you give them a simple “good morning” or even just a smile and a wave as you ride by.
On Doing A Long Bike Trip
- Training is essential. The month and a half I spent training was probably the bare minimum necessary for a trip like this. I got used to longer rides than I’d ever done solo before, and learned what made sense for me in terms of how often to take breaks. (If all your long rides have been group rides, you take organized breaks for granted and don’t think about how often you have to stop to refresh yourself.) On the flip side…
- Training will never prepare you for everything. So much took me by surprise over the course of this ride. I trained in the spring, and we had a fairly cool, overcast spring in Massachusetts this year, so I didn’t really know what it was going to be like doing 100 miles in the summer sun and heat. Likewise, most of Massachusetts is wooded, so I didn’t know what it would be like to bike for half a day with no shade whatsoever. On the mental level, when you’re training you’re usually fairly close to home. I may have taken some individual roads that I’d never been on before, and I may have visited some unfamiliar towns (hello, Plympton!), but overall I was training on familiar territory. It’s a whole different story when you’re on the road in an area that’s nowhere near anywhere you’ve ever been before. Distances feel longer because you don’t have the same mental image of where you’re trying to get to. The real thing is always going to be tougher than the trial run.
- Things will go wrong. This should be obvious that over the course of 6 weeks some things won’t go according to plan, but it’s one thing to say it and another thing to internalize it. I was actually a little relieved when I got a flat tire and when I wiped out, because I’d been getting a bit too lucky with a lot of things, and I’d rather have something go wrong that I can handle than have something go wrong that I can’t handle. On a related note…
- You will get sore beyond belief and probably injured as well. Saddle soreness goes without saying. Some days it’s not too bad, some days it’s horrible, but I don’t think there was a single day of riding where my butt wasn’t sore by the end. But then there were surprises, like the Achilles tendinitis I developed somewhere around St. Cloud, MN. There was a solid stretch of maybe 20 miles between St. Cloud and Minneapolis where I had to pedal very gingerly because otherwise the pain was too great, and I worried that if it got any worse I wouldn’t be able to continue. Likewise, somewhere in Montana or North Dakota I developed carpal tunnel in my left hand. At some point I just noticed my fingers in that hand were feeling weak and I couldn’t push with any force. In fact, I couldn’t even cross my fingers they’d gotten so weak. I’ve recovered from both the carpal tunnel and the tendinitis, but both were scary when they happened. All I can really say is do a lot of stretching. On another related note…
- Be thankful your body works. Not everyone is physically capable of doing a ride like this. If you are, be incredibly thankful for it. Especially as the ride wore on, I was thankful every day that I have a body that functions pretty well and that everything was somehow managing to hold up in more or less good working order. It’s pretty incredible when you think about it.
- Talk to locals. This is especially true if you’re doing a self-supported ride. They’ll know local road conditions better than Google or any cycling map could tell you. Some dirt roads are pretty easy to bike on. Some aren’t. If you don’t want to get stuck on one of the latter, your best bet is to ask around before you attempt it. They can also warn you about hills that are a lot more imposing in person than they appear to be on an elevation profile map. When you’re in more populated areas, they can recommend interesting towns to check out, or tell you what areas are dangerous and should be avoided. On a broader level, what are you doing biking cross-country if you’re not trying to learn something about the areas you’re biking through? And assuming it’s not a guided tour, how are you going to learn about those areas without talking to the people who live there?
- Take everything Google says with a grain of salt. Google goes to pathological lengths to try to keep you off numbered highways, even if the numbered highway is a designated bike route with a wide shoulder and the alternative is longer and hillier with worse pavement. That said, sometimes Google does find good shortcuts, but see my previous bullet about checking with locals first before trying to follow them.
- Suburbs are the worst for biking. Cities tend to have bike lanes. Rural areas tend to have wide shoulders and/or not much traffic. Suburbs often have lots of traffic and no shoulders or bike lanes. Sometimes your best bet is to ride on the sidewalk. Sometimes there’ll be a winding bike path that goes several miles out of the way but will at least keep you off the street. Sometimes you’ll just have to suck it up and bike in the road. In this last case, make sure to take up a full lane so cars have to change lanes to get around you rather than thinking they can pass you while staying in your lane.
- Don’t be afraid to bike on Interstates. Of course this comes with the caveat that you should only bike on Interstates in places where it’s legal. Soooo many people have asked me if I was afraid to bike on Interstates, but honestly I was more afraid on 2-lane roads with bad shoulders and trucks whizzing by. At least on Interstates you know you’ll get a wide shoulder with good pavement and will be protected by rumble strips. For the most part your biggest concerns on an Interstate will just be avoiding debris in the shoulder and keeping an eye out for cars pulled over, but I didn’t even really encounter the latter. I don’t advocate spending long distances on Interstates, but that’s more because they’re boring and there’s nowhere to rest.
- This is about you. Assuming you’re not on a charity ride, you’re doing the ride for yourself and no one else, so don’t force yourself to do something if it’s just going to make you miserable. If you’ve exhausted yourself from doing long distances for a couple of days and aren’t in a good spot to take a rest day, just take a shorter day and accept that you won’t make it as far. If there’s a stretch you just really don’t want to do, hitch a ride. On the other hand, if you’re a purist who won’t feel fulfilled unless you bike every mile, then rest up, grit your teeth, and get through it.
On Following Your Dreams
- If an opportunity presents itself to achieve one of your dreams, take it. I’d had it in the back of my head for many years that I’d like to bike cross country, but I never thought I’d get a good block of time to make it happen. When I realized I could actually have a block of time to make this happen, I then couldn’t get the idea out of my head, and I realized if I didn’t do the ride now I might never get the chance again, and then I’d be left wondering “What if?” If you have a big dream, chances are the opportunity to achieve it isn’t going to arise very many times in your life, if at all. So if you’re lucky enough to get the chance, go for it!
- Be ready for the follow-up question: “What next?” I can’t say I’ve found a good answer for this myself, but it’s definitely something that needs to be considered. You’ve achieved one of your big life goals, and now you still have the rest of your life ahead of you but with one fewer goal. Make sure you still have other things to shoot for.
Well! That was a longer post than I expected to write, and I’ll probably add more things as I think of them, but hopefully that gives a general idea of experiences both expected and unexpected that I learned from over the past couple of months.