In May 2014, I rode a bicycle from my home in Central Pennsylvania to Cherokee, North Carolina—a two-week journey of nearly 1,000 miles up and down the Appalachian Mountains.
A year later, a friend asked me if I wanted to bike across America. Remembering the freedom of the road, the unknown of each new day, the marvelous strangers I’d met and all the delicious food, I couldn’t turn him down.
We left Pennsylvania in May and ferried across the bay into San Francisco, California three months later.
Touring is a much better vacation than going on a cruise or to a lavish resort. We experienced life at 12 miles an hour, a rate slow enough to appreciate everything our country had to offer and fast enough to feel like we were getting somewhere. Some of life’s greatest experiences happen while touring.
Here are 10 things we learned as cross-country cyclists:
1. Be resolved.
Before I left on both tours, I knew I was going to finish. Quitting was never an option. I don’t mean to insult the resolute readers, but I’ve learned that some ambitions are half-baked. Don’t go unless you mean to finish.
2. Be prepared.
It will help to have some cycling experience (i.e. knowing how to ride a bike). Lengthy rides of 30 or 40 miles are realistic previews of what a day on the road will be like. My partner didn’t even own a bicycle before we decided to bike across the country, but he had tip number one down, so we pushed through our struggles and made it to the Pacific Ocean.
3. Take only what’s needed.
What’s gold to one cyclist could be trash to another. I’ve heard of one cross-country cyclist who carried a hardcover first edition of War and Peace (she also used cat litter containers for panniers). I thought the book was pointless weight, but she may have said the same about my hatchet.
Here are some essentials we both could have agreed on:
Water bottles—at least two
Multi-tools—one for the bike and one for general repairs
Patch kit and pump (my flat tire count across the country: six, my partner’s: 20)
Extra tubes—at least two at all times
All-weather clothing—I experienced July hail in Colorado
An e-book account on your phone
Change purse—one of the little things I never thought of until I needed it
A drawstring bag—for exploring on foot
If we realized we needed something, we picked it up in the next town. If we packed something we weren’t using, we donated it or ditched it.
This could also be number one. Stay hydrated. Hydration is the main concern when actually riding on the tour. I filled my bottles every chance I got. My partner and I used CamelBaks for even more capacity. Along with hydration, staying out of the sun whenever possible kept our bodies cool and ready to keep going.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Touring is not for the overly cynical, or perhaps it is. I’ve learned that strangers are one of the biggest assets a touring cyclist has. We were broke down in Perryville, Kentucky when we met a lovely couple at a yard sale. They let us crash at their place for a couple nights, fed us and gave my partner a ride to a bike shop an hour away in Lexington. Now, I believe that cynicism is sanity, and we had to be shrewd out there, but most people we met were good. Don’t believe me? Check out WarmShowers.
6. Appreciate the journey.
At times I wondered why I left and wished I was at home in my own bed. During a grueling climb on a hot day, I wanted to be anywhere else in the world. But, I didn’t quit. It was a journey most wouldn’t even dream of undertaking. Whenever I felt down, I reminded myself that I was going to miss the freedom of the road when it was over.
7. Balance speed and appreciation.
It seems like some touring cyclists have all the time—and money—in the world. We met a French couple somewhere in Kansas who had been touring since 2006! Most of us don’t have so much time and/or money. We had to strike a balance between finishing quickly so we didn’t run out of money, and moving slowly enough to have fun and cherish the beauty of the ride. If we had been going hard for a couple weeks, we took a zero day—or three—in a small town somewhere.
8. “Bike your bike.”
AT (Appalachian Trail) hikers have a saying: “Hike your hike.” One hiker I met on my travels, Miss America, transferred that phrase to touring cyclists. It means don’t worry about other cyclists who have a better bike or a support vehicle or are moving faster or have less, or more, in their panniers. Just worry about yourself. Do the best you can for yourself. Make decisions from your own viewpoint, and consider how the outcomes will affect you. In short, bike your bike.
9. Keep a journal.
Memories are etched in our minds forever, but memories are limited. Logging about the tour gave me and others a better picture of what it was like. I started with the date, time, location and a description of the weather and surroundings. Those four notes alone gave the reader a good idea of where I was. Then I wrote about my day, its struggles, highlights, humor, achievements, randomness—whatever. Even if I thought there was nothing to write about, I wrote it anyway.
10. On climbing.
It takes a special breed to be a good climber. Elevation will try to stop any cyclist who braves long distance anywhere in the United States. One of my proudest moments came when I climbed nearly 10 miles—nonstop—to Apple Orchard Mountain on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.
Some tips for climbing: Don’t stop. It’s that simple. Ignore the screaming legs and burning rear. Just don’t stop. Establish a cadence and sync it with your breathing. Pick a point in the distance and reach that point. Repeat, and refer to tip number one. Resolving to climb Monarch Pass got me through the ascent.
Bonus: Stay clean. We did our best to sniff out a shower or take a dip in a creek every day. Any wet, dark area should be cleaned at least once a day. Saddle sores can ruin a ride. Staying clean helped prevent them and kept us moving.
Author: Kory S. Kramer
Editor: Alicia Wozniak / Editor: Toby Israel
Photo: Author’s Own