Thursday, March 2, 2017

Bicycle touring and family matters

It's only March but if you, like me, are already thinking where your cycling adventures will take you once it gets a bit warmer, you may be thinking about giving bicycle touring a try.

Many people believe that you need a lot of money to travel by bicycle. You don't. At least not as much as you may think. But because bicycle is a relatively slow mode of transportation, you certainly need plenty of time. For me, finding time is by far the most difficult thing about bicycle touring (or bikepacking, whatever you like to call it).

I'm a family man. I have a lovely wife and two little buggers plus a 9-to-5 job. This means that should I plan to take more time off to ride my bike, keeping my family and my boss happy could be quite difficult. I can't picture myself saying "Honey, I'll be gone for some time. Take care!" simply because I know that those short weekends is the only time I can help out by taking care of kids, so that she can do her own stuff too. It's also not feasible to take a full month off at work (without quitting my job) and abandoning my family to tour some remote country by bicycle. Unfortunately, my wife is not much of a cycling person and my kids are too little to be involved into any serious escapades. Yet.

All this means that I had to come up with some smart strategy that would still let me travel by bicycle at least once a while. Of course, traversing Sahara or riding across Alaska is out of question. I had to start small... and likely stick to it. Here are some tips for those who want to go bike touring but have no time:

1. Travel light on a fast bike.

This applies in general to pretty much any type of bike touring. You don't want to take too much with you as this means more items to pack and unpack, more to haul, more stuff that can break or get stolen. You would also want a relatively quick bike - lightweight and fast-rolling. It doesn't mean that you should buy a race bike. While some people are perfectly happy to travel on vintage 3-speed roadsters, in our case, because of limited time we need to keep moving and a heavy bike without proper gears would slow us down.
My "touring" bike loaded with everything I need for a 2-3 day trip.

2. Increase your mileage.

You want to get to places and see more, but you have limited time - what do you do? Travel faster (hence a fast bike and a light load) and further. This means - more riding in one day. While most touring cyclists don't ride more than 50-60mi (80-100km) a day, it's perfectly possible for an average cyclist to ride much more without exertion and still save time to stop for pictures, food and rest. I usually ride 75-100mi (120-160km) a day during my mini bike tours, which means riding for 11-12 hours (including all stops). Obviously, in difficult terrain these numbers are lower, but in general, it's just a good idea to use all available daylight as much as possible. You will be getting up just after sunrise. It may sound harsh but if you want to get to places in limited time, it's the best what you can do.

3. Plan well but be flexible.

There are many bicycle tourists (or bikepackers) who claim that the true way of traveling by bike is to point direction and go - without any plan. Unfortunately, this kind of ultimate freedom is good for those who have unlimited time. While I'd love to travel like that, not knowing where I end up on a given day and where I would sleep, I can't. Therefore, careful and detailed planning is critical. However, at the same time you have to be flexible. First, you should have plan B in case something doesn't go as originally planned. Second, grab any opportunity. There are places you would likely want to visit on a certain time in the year. For example, New Hampshire would be great to tour in the end of September when all foliage is at its peak. But you may not have time in September. Maybe your kids will be going to school and you have to be around? Whenever an opportunity comes up, when you can take time off and your spouse with kids will be entertained for a few days - use it. The next one may not show up for a while.
New Hampshire can be beautiful in the peak of foliage season.

4. Stay local.

This one is self-explanatory. Forget about visiting places that require 2 days of airline travel. You don't have time for that. Best is to stay local. Trips from your doorsteps can be fun but if you feel like you know your neighborhood too well and want to explore further...

5. Use your car.

Put the bike in your car and leave early morning to reach a remote location where you can start your tour. This way you can quickly get to places even a couple of hundred miles away from your home. Combined with a 2-3 day weekend bike tour, this gives you an opportunity to see more. One problem you may face is where to leave your car overnight for a few days. Long-term airport parking is generally a good choice even though it's not going to be free. However, many states have designated park-and-ride locations, where you can leave your car for free for a few days. This is what I did in Vermont recently. New Hampshire and Maine have similar facilities.

6Use public transport.

If driving your car to a bike tour is not something you can or want to do, try the train. Unfortunately, trains in the U.S. are generally slower than driving and the number of Amtrak trains that allow bicycles on-board is very limited, but you may be lucky to have one in your area. Buses are an option too but depending on the company, taking unboxed bicycles on-board may not be not allowed. You may however, try to combine different modes of transport or even do a one-way tour, where you would start from your home on your bicycle, eventually reaching a place where you can catch a train or bus back.

7Overnighter is your best friend.

The quickest, shortest and easiest way to start is simply to ride somewhere from your doorsteps for the whole day, stay overnight and return the next day. This "overnighter" (Is that a word?) is your best friend, simply because it can be done on weekends. No need to take time off at work.

8. Afternoon overnighter - if you really have no time.

But what do you do when you can't find time for two full days of cycling but still want to go for a quick tour? Try the afternoon overnighter, which is basically a shortened version of the 2-day tour. Start from your home on Saturday afternoon and ride to the location worth visiting, not too far from your house - some place you can comfortably reach before sunset. Stay overnight, then return on Sunday morning. This type of micro-adventure still lets you stay over in an interesting location and get there by bike, even though you could actually get there and return in just one day. It's like a 1-day long ride divided into two.

9. A (holiday) weekend tour.

If you feel ready for a bit longer mini-tours, a 2-day weekend trip is probably the easiest one to execute. You may leave your work early on Friday, spend touring over the weekend to return on Sunday evening. There are many variations possible. For example, since many national holidays are conveniently placed on Mondays in U.S. calendar, use it to your advantage (This is what I did visiting Vermont last year). Just keep in mind that campgrounds may be full, especially in high season.
10Saturday to Sunday is the most you can get.

Once you figure out how to send your wife and kids away to visit your in-laws, friends or relatives, it's time to take a week off at work and squeeze in the longest bike tour you will be likely ever able to do. Starting on Saturday morning and returning on the next Sunday afternoon means a 9 days and 8 nights long "expedition". This is where all the fun begins, just don't expect to be able to do it frequently.

That's it. I hope it was helpful for some of you. I'm planning my next short cycling adventure this summer but still need to work out some details. For now, I will stay quiet. I don't want to jinx anything.

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