Dave's Bicycling Pages

Coast to Coast Bicycle Tour, Spring 2002
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  Frequently Asked Questions


I think anyone who has ridden a bicycle has wondered how far it could take him/her. Back when I was in junior high, a friend and I once rode our bikes about 25 miles to another town. I thought it was great everyone else thought I was nuts. When I rediscovered cycling two years ago, my goals were all oriented toward distance, not speed. I have no desire to race, but I have ridden many centuries (100-mile rides). With a series of short tours in 2000, I became one of the first people to ride the 500+ mile Grand Illinois Trail. Riding across the country just seemed like a logical extension of my previous goals.

How much training did you do for a ride like this?

Actually, not much. I donít enjoy training because I get bored riding the same roads over and over. I like to explore and see new things. Plus, Chicago isnít exactly the most stress-free cycling environment, and not a nice place for winter riding. Sometimes I rode my road bike on a trainer in the basement, but only a couple hours a week (not much training for 6-8 hours a day of touring). Instead of preparing with lots of training, I planned to ride myself into shape on the tour. This wouldnít be feasible on a shorter trip, but for a cross-country journey it worked fine. I just rode shorter distances for the first week or two and built up from there.

Why did you go alone?

The short answer is that I couldnít get along with anyone 24-7 for two months. However, there were several advantages to traveling alone. I could ride at my own pace on whatever route I chose, and I didnít have to argue with anyone about it. I rode short days or took a day off when I didn't feel like riding, and I rode lots of miles when I felt good. Going solo gave me much more freedom. There were disadvantages, too, but there was never any question in my mind about whether to go alone or with a group.

Why did you go from east to west?

I had several reasons for my riding direction. First, it seemed natural in a country that was explored and developed from the east coast to the west. Second, since my training was weak, it made sense to build up my strength on the flatter terrain of the Southeast rather than on the mountains of the Southwest. Since I was starting in late February, it also made sense to delay reaching the higher elevations of New Mexico and Arizona for at least an extra month. And finally, the more densely populated Southeast was a good place to develop the skills and confidence that I would need when I reached the Southwest and had to travel much longer distances between towns.

What about the wind?

Conventional wisdom says that I would have had tailwinds going from west to east, so why would I choose to ride into the wind all the way? Actually, that assumption is incorrect--although U.S. weather patterns generally go from west to east in the upper atmosphere, the winds at ground level vary in direction and intensity depending on the season and local geography, among other things. It seemed like I had headwinds a lot, but that was often due to the speed of the bike (a 10 mph tailwind becomes  a headwind once the bike is going more than 10 mph).

Didn't your butt get sore?

Usually the people who ask this are those who don't ride much. Actually, the body adapts to it pretty quickly. Since I was lax in training beforehand, I had a bit of soreness for the first few days. After that, it was never an issue. Chafing was always a bigger concern than soreness, so I used Chamois Butt'r to lubricate the places that rubbed. I had one minor problem with saddle sores, but a dab of Neosporin prevented them from getting any worse and within days they were gone.

Where did you sleep?

Originally, I planned to carry a tent and a sleeping bag, but I left them at home and stayed in motels every night instead. I like my laptop and The Weather Channel much more than I like camping, plus I already had too much stuff to carry. When it became apparent that the only time I was going to camp was if I had to, I chose to plan my route so I wouldn't. That meant some days were shorter or longer than I might have liked, but I was willing to make that trade-off. While camping would have been much cheaper, I would never underestimate the value of a hot shower and a warm or cool place to sleep after a long day of riding.

What did you ride?

For this trip, I decided to buy a new touring bike, a Co-Motion Americano. A couple of my other bikes might have been adequate (especially my Bike Friday New World Tourist), but Iíll use any excuse to buy a new bike. The Americano is one of the best touring bikes around. As the name implies, Co-Motion is foremost a tandem builder, so it was natural to apply their heavy-duty approach to a touring bike. My only major upgrade was to go from bar-end shifters to STI (shifters integrated into the brake levers). The drivetrain is comprised of higher-end Shimano (Ultegra/XTR) and Race Face components. Although it looks like a racing bike (or road bike, or " ten-speed" ), there are some significant differences. Most importantly, it has low gearing (like a mountain bike) to haul the heavy load up hills. There are also differences in the frame geometry, most notably a more upright seating position and longer chainstays to keep the rear panniers out of the way of my heels. The cranberry red frame is made of sturdy, tandem-strength steel tubes. I had S+S Couplings installed so that the frame could be disassembled for packing (a feature I didn't use on this trip). I also added SKS fenders and Tubus front and rear racks. I use Speedplay Frog pedals, mountain bike pedals with the benefit of recessed cleats (for walking). For more about this  bike and my others, visit Dave's Bicycle Garage.

What did you carry?

I started out with 60-70 pounds of gear, but I mailed things home along the way as I determined I could live without them. I bought front and rear Arkel panniers for my trip, and they were excellent. One front pannier held mostly stuff for the bike (tools, spare parts, etc.), while the other carried my laptop and accessories (mouse, modem, and CD-RW drive). In back, most of my clothing was in the left pannier while the right was a catch-all for other stuff (camera, books, maps, toiletries, extra water, snacks, etc.). I also had two 26-ounce water bottles mounted on the bike frame.

What kind of camera did you use?

This was my first trip with a digital camera, the Canon PowerShot G2. I started out using the auto and program modes. Later, I took panoramic photos as well. The G2 had many more features than I needed, but with my background in 35mm SLR photography, I wanted flexibility. The camera performed so well in the basic modes, however, that I never bothered to experiment with the other modes. I had four 256MB memory cards, so I could take a lot of pictures before downloading the photos to my laptop (two cards would have been plenty, but I wanted more in case of a laptop failure). The G2 shot about 115 photos per card at its highest resolution. I brought an extra battery, but I found that recharging the original whenever I downloaded photos to my laptop sufficed. I had a point-and-shoot 35mm camera as a back-up, but I never used it. Even after taking more than 2,000 photos on this trip, I still have a lot to learn about digital photography and digital photo editing.

How did you basically get away from your life for two months?

Since I had a consulting contract end in December 2001, I didn't have to worry about missing work. My wife managed the bills, the house, and the pets while I was gone. I called home a few times a week and checked my e-mail most nights, so I wasn't completely out of contact.

How much did it cost?

I didn't keep track, but I can make a few estimates. My biggest daily expense was lodging. Traveling in the off-season and choosing budget motels (not dives, but Motel 6 and the like) kept this reasonable, probably averaging $45 a night including tax. Food expenses may have been $17-20 a day, including bottled water, snacks, and one or two " real" meals. There were a few hundred dollars more in incidental expenses like souvenirs, books, postage, and laundry. The Amtrak trips before and after  were a few hundred dollars, too. I used a credit card for almost everything over $15, so I rarely visited ATM's for cash. Beforehand, I spent more than $5,000 on equipment (bike, panniers, camera, laptop, maps, etc.). I bought top-of-the-line gear, but one could get by on much less. Since most of those items will last for many years, I don't really count them as trip expenses. And finally, I traveled over 6,000 miles round trip without spending a single penny on gas!

Is it safe to ride across the country alone?

What is " safe?" Staying home? There are plenty of hazards around the house. Any activity has some risk associated with it, and I donít feel that cyclo-touring has any more inherent risk than most other activities. Many people perceive something as dangerous simply because they've never done it. Sure, " something could happen.Ē I could crash or get run over, I could get attacked by a person or animal, whatever. Any number of things could happen to me riding the subway, so does that mean I shouldnít go to work? Cycling across this auto-centric nation is not without risks, but the rewards are great as well. As Ernest Hemingway put it,

It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.

Or as Townes Van Zandt wrote, " You cannot count the miles until you feel them." On a bicycle, you'll feel them!

What advice do you have for those who would follow?

There is a lot of great advice available from other sources, especially the touring e-mail list, Ken Kifer's web site, the Adventure Cycling Association, and BicycleTouring101.com (see Links). There are many ways to tour, from taking a van-supported group trip and staying in bed & breakfasts to going alone and camping by the side of the road. I believe there's a place somewhere along that continuum for anyone to have a rewarding experience. Ultimately, I guess my advice would be this: if you're thinking about it, do it. Don't wait around for " someday."

Would you do it again?

A cross-country trip is something I think everyone should do once, and it was a fantastic experience for me. Although it would be a completely different experience to cross America further north, I don't feel a need to do another coast-to-coast journey (at least not yet). One pitfall of a cross-country route is that inevitably one has to ride in some areas that aren't that great for cycling, especially in cities and in the East where roads tend to be more narrow and crowded. In the future, I would prefer to spend a few weeks exploring a specific region instead.

More questions? Send me an E-mail.

Copyright © 2002-2013 David Johnsen. All rights reserved.