When I was 10 years old I got a Schwinn Stingray bike for my birthday. It had a banana seat, high handlebars, and a stick shift style shifter. I rode that bike everywhere. It gave me a sense of freedom.
Actually, it did give me freedom. For the first time I could wander beyond the confines of my neighborhood in my small hometown south of Chicago. It was then that I discovered a bike was more than just a way to get around.
A bike was an adventure waiting to happen.
Fast forward 35 years to 2006. My wife, Alison, and I have two kids and established careers in Walla Walla. Our dream of bicycling across the United States had faded years before. Although we still enjoyed cycling we hadn’t seriously considered any long distance trips since we were in our mid-20s.
That was, however, until some friends suggested we borrow their tandem bikes and take our kids on a two-day ride on the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes in Idaho. After a day of cycling we were camped in a city park near the trail. I remember waking up, looking at the stars, and thinking “this is how we can bike across the country.”
And thus began our love of cycle touring.
Two years later we christened the rear tires of our two tandems in the Pacific Ocean near Lincoln City, Ore. Eighty days and 3,500 miles after that we dipped our front tires in the Atlantic.
Since then we have done other tours, including cycling from Walla Walla to the Canadian border, riding the entire Oregon coast, and just last month my son and I cycled 1,000 miles from the Oregon-California border to Mexico.
Before our cross-country trek we researched long-distance touring for about two years. One of the greatest obstacles we had to overcome was the “what-ifs.”
When we would tell people about our plan I would often hear “What if you get lost?” “What if your bike breaks down?” or “What if one of your kids gets injured or killed?” The lesson we learned was to not let the “what-ifs” derail the journey before it started.
Next we needed to plan a route. Luckily there is a wonderful organization called Adventure Cycling which publishes bicycling maps for several cross-country routes. Using these maps we were able to plan how far we would cycle every day (our average was about 60 miles) and where we would stay the night (a combination of tent camping and motels). We decided to take a northern route across the US. This would keep us out of most major cities.
One of the most important decisions, and the one that took us the longest to make, was which bikes to get.
We needed tandems since our kids were too young to ride by themselves. We knew that the bikes needed to balance comfort with sturdiness. A touring bike needs to survive the daily grind of cycling in all kinds of weather and road conditions, as well as be able to carry bike bags with camping gear, clothes, and other necessities.
We tried to be as minimalist as possible in the clothes and personal gear we carried, but we also needed to be prepared for all types of weather. There are many great resources on the web with gear lists. At a minimum, however, we found that clothes specific for cycling were invaluable (especially the padded shorts). Bright, reflective clothing was also crucial.
Understanding basic bicycle repair was also important. Our cross-country route took us along some pretty lonely highways days from any bike shop. Having the knowledge and tools to deal with the most common bike repairs is a must.
Physical preparation was hit-and-miss for us. We tried to train before our cross-country trip, going mostly on weekend rides.
I found, however, that after a week or so of touring the mental aspect of being on the bike all day becomes even more important. It often seems like we live in our cars, speeding from one place to another. On the bike I learned not worry about how fast we were going. Once I did that I was able to enjoy the speed of bike travel.
Something we could not plan for, because we needed to be on the trip to experience it, was how incredibly friendly and helpful people would be. Sometimes in our everyday lives we forget about the kindness of others, and our potential to show kindness to others.
While cycling in Ontario, Canada, my wife’s bike was having an issue with the chain that we couldn’t fix. We stopped at a bike shop and explained our situation and that we were touring cyclists. The owner, Randy, was very busy but he took time to look at the bike and adjust the chain tension. Randy took about an hour to get the chain just right. As he worked we talked about our trip and some of our adventures.
When he finished we went back into the store so I could pay him for his time. He told me the cost was $5. I thought I misheard him. Five dollars for working on the bike for nearly an hour?
“We’ll charge the rest to the bank of karma,” he said.
We encountered many such “road angels” on our trips. Every long-distance cyclist I talk with has similar stories.
Taking young kids on a cycling adventure presents its own challenges, and opportunities.
My son, Gus, was 10 at the time, and my daughter, Sonia, was 11.
I found that I started to see the world through their eyes. When I was thinking about the mileage we needed to make that day, the kids would be talking about the blue heron they just saw take off from the river. When I would worry about the thunderstorm in the distance, the kids would marvel at the colors of the clouds and the sound of the thunder.
They learned to be self-sufficient, deal with adversity and see the beauty of the country at a speed slow enough to enjoy it — and eat as much pie and ice cream as they wanted.
The most rewarding part of cycle touring is the time I am able to spend with my family. When we did our cross country tour we were with the kids all day, every day.
We learned to work together and have fun together. On the most recent trip with my son we were able to experience the wild beauty of the northern California coast and the wonderful beaches and ocean views in the south in a way that we could never have in a car.
At the age of 52 my bike continues to be a way for me to get to work and around town. It still is, however, an adventure waiting to happen.