Sunday, April 27, 2008

Un Brevet Brutal

Yesterday I rode my first brevet and it was brutal. Brevets, which started in France, are long-distance endurance rides. A former co-worker, who has completed several of these rides, told me about yesterday's event a few weeks ago and I thought that it would be good training before I set out for Yorktown. I expected the ride to be tough because at 127 miles it was more than I had ever ridden in one day. I also recently bought a new leather seat that is not yet completely broken in. However, it wasn't the distance or the seat that made this ride so painful; it was the wind -- the soul crushing wind.

Due to a bent fender I got a late start, so it was good practice for riding alone. Before I even left the starting point -- a Super 8 parking lot in Delavan, Wisconsin-- a pair of Ohioans had thrown in the towel. "We do these rides for fun and that isn't fun," they told me. I considered myself warned. I fought headwinds and crosswinds for the first 65 miles. At times it felt like if I was going any slower I'd have been standing still. I stopped counting the number of times that I thought I was going to be blown over. My upper body struggled to keep myself upright as I leaned heavily into wind gusts. As I pedalled along at 9 mph, I cursed mother nature and reaffirmed my committment to eliminate all unnecessary weight for my Transamerica ride. Fortunately, the brevet route was out and back, so while I fought the wind to the halfway point, I benefited from a tailwind for much of the way back. Though the ride took over eleven hours to complete, it was reassuring to finish.

This morning, I checked a weather station in the Delavan area for yesterday's wind readings. It reported sustained winds between 25-29 mph and wind gusts between 40-45 mph, with some readings up to 49 mph. If I ever face winds that strong on the Transam I'll take it as an invitation to pull into the first campground or motel I pass and I'll never choose to ride 127 miles in one day. But it's nice to know that if I had to, I could handle those conditions. Now if I could just find a way to avoid riding uphill.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

West Town Bikes

In preparing for this trip, I have been amazed by the number of resources that there are for cyclists planning a self-supported tour. From the websites and blogs of cyclists who have already toured to established non-profit organizations devoted to bike touring, there is a wealth of information available. Connecting with some of the folks running these organizations and websites has been inspiring.

I met some of these inspirational people on Wednesday night. While searching for a bike maintenance class that I could take before I leave, I learned of West Town Bikes, a Chicago non-profit organization that promotes biking through educational workshops for both underprivileged kids and the community at large. Volunteers teach classes ranging from bike basics to building a bike from scratch. Last night was the basics -- how to repair flats, tune brakes and maintain the chain. Both the students and the bikes in attendance were diverse. The students were young, middle aged, and older; experienced bikers and biking newbies. Our bikes included a thirty year old Schwin, a state of the art racing bike, and a fair number of Treks.

The class took place in a well-outfitted workshop, stocked through donations, grants, and second-hand sales. Mike, our instructor, had an easy-going manner that still managed to convey his enthusaism for biking. Anyone who owns twelve bikes must be enthusiastic about biking. The photo above is next to the workshop's only entrance off an alley near the intersection of North and Western. You know you're close when you see the free air. If you live in Chicago and you're interested in learning more about your bike, I highly recommend checking out this great organization.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Reading List

Most of my time over the next few months will be devoted to pedaling, but I will also have a considerable amount of non-cycling time. Since I am doing this ride solo, I'm going to need a few good books to pass my waking hours. Over the last few years, I have accumulated a considerable stack of unread books -- the result of an overly optimistic view of my free time. Unfortunately, I can't pack these books for my trip because they exceed reasonable weight and size limits. Obviously, I can't take any hardcovers but even modern paperbacks are often too large. I need old-school paperbacks. Though I'm not a big fan of their yellowing pages and crowded text, their compactness is a definite plus.

My plan is to carry two books with me at all times in the hopes that I'll always be in the mood to read at least one of them. When I finish a book on the road I'll leave it somewhere or donate it and then try to pick up another book in the small towns I'm passing through. I'd like to read some books apropos for my ride -- interesting travel memoirs or american history -- but after a long day of cycling I'm sure I'll be more interested in reading something a little lighter. For starters, I've always wanted to read Undaunted Courage about Lewis and Clark's expedition and I recently picked up Saul Bellow's Herzog at a used book sale. If you have any recommendations of good paperbacks, post a comment or send me an email.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Gear

One of the first questions people ask about the trip is what you take on a three-month bike ride. Deciding on my gear, researching the lightest and most reliable products, and gathering them all together has occupied much of my time these past few weeks. I have finalized my equipment list but the reality is that it will be a work in progress throughout my trip. Equipment that seems essential now may not seem so necessary after I carry it around for a few days. Based on the travelogues of other Transam riders, it's a near-universal experience to send gear home after a few days to lighten the load. It's especially common to stop at the post office before heading into the mountains. My current gear list is provided below. It will take a little time on the road to determine what should have stayed home and what was overlooked.

Long Haul Trucker w/ front and rear racks, pedals, fenders, kickstand, front and rear lights, Ortlieb front and rear panniers and handlebar bag
Bike computer
3 water bottles
Extra spokes
Tubes (3x)
Extra tire
Tool kit
Bike pump
Bike rain cover

One-person Crestone tent
Down sleeping bag
Prolite sleeping mat
Pack towel
Trekker chair
Cooking Pot

Bike shorts (3x)
Bike pants
Pants that convert to shorts
Bike jersey (3x)
Wool zip-up
Smart wool socks (4x)
Rain coat
Rain pants
Helmet cover
Bike shoes
Bike gloves
Wool hat

Etrex Vista HCx GPS
Cell Phone
Iriver MP3 player
Asus EEE computer
Canon Rebel XT Camera
Various chargers and USB cords

Transamerica Trail Maps
State Maps
Camelback water container
First aid kit
Dog spray
Bungie cords
Swiss Army knife
Notebook and pens/pencils
Bug spray

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


View Larger Map
During the course of my research for this ride, I read somewhere that for a trip this length you can train on the ride itself. I have now repeated that to enough people that I'm starting to believe it. Since I have no deadline for completion, I have the luxury of starting at a slower pace and increasing my mileage as I progress. I also can take rest days as needed, though I'll want to keep a sense of momentum.

While my best training will begin on the day I leave Yorktown, I am going on longer rides this month in preparation for my departure. Living close to the Chicago lakefront bike path allows me to make the convenient thirty-five mile loop, shown above. I'm not getting the full experience of dodging traffic, but the busy path can pose it's own obstacles created by the combination of runners, rollerbladers, speeding cyclists, strollers, and unattended children. There's usually at least one fatality a year on the path -- usually a biker without a helmet. I'm hopeful that the winds I face on the Transam won't be any worse than the April wind gusting off Lake Michigan, but I imagine the wind in Kansas will rival the wind I've battled here. In addition to my rides on the lakefront, I plan to take a three-day trip to Wisconsin next week. This will serve as a trial run with a fully loaded bike. I'll know sometime in early May whether this preparation was sufficient.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Bike

I rode my new bike home from Turin Bicycle on Friday evening. After hours of Internet research and many discussions with bike shop staff I purchased a Surly Long Haul Trucker – a touring bike built to carry heavy weight on long-distance rides. Riding the Surly was a whole new experience. Since my teens, I have always ridden mountain bikes, despite the fact that I rarely made it to off-road trails. I have especially fond memories of a basic Trek 820 that I took on my junior year study abroad and rode around France and Spain. I owned that bike for many years until industrious Chicago thieves cut down the street sign that I locked it to and rode off with it. (Many years later half of that sign post still stands bolted to the concrete sidewalk.) On the few century rides that I have done over the years I was one of the only riders cycling the hundred miles on a fat-tired mountain bike. The other riders would give me a look that said “I can’t believe you’re riding hundred miles on that” as they breezed by me on their road bikes. But I was comfortable with the feel and fit of my mountain bike.

So it was with a little apprehension that I started riding home on my new touring bike. Jake, who sold me my bike, made all the proper adjustments and taught me how to use clipless pedals (another new experience) before I started my ride home. For those who don’t bike, with clipless pedals a cyclist attaches to the bike by clipping cleats on the bottom of his shoes into the pedals. The rider then detaches from the bike by turning their heel inward or outward. This too takes some getting used to.

I’m told that even riders who have used clipless pedals for years have the occasional embarrassing fall at a red light when they fail to unclip a foot before their bike comes to a stop. I was at my second stop sign about a minute and a half into my ride when I had my first clipless-pedal induced moment of panic. I had disengaged my right foot with the intention of leaning to the right and supporting myself with that leg. Unfortunately, as I slowed my bike started leaning to the left. It felt like slow motion, as I thought about how it was going to feel to hit the pavement along with my new bike. Miraculously, I managed to rip my left foot from the pedal just in time to save myself from falling over. I vigilantly unclipped my left foot the rest of the ride home.

This bike will be my inseparable companion for the next three months. And I’m expecting a lot from it – a comfortable and reliable ride across the country. After one five mile ride (admittedly, not much to go on), I’m optimistic that I made a good choice. Though I’m sure I’ll be tweaking the bike over the next few weeks before I leave, I’m excited to start my trip on this Surly.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Idea

Map courtesy of Andy Strang at

Long before I ever passed driver’s ed, I sat down one day with an atlas and planned a summer tour of the United States. At the time my plan involved a VW bus with a pop-up top (yes, it was my hippie phase) in which I could sleep comfortably on the cheap. I mapped out a route that included America's great cities and rural landscapes, its natural beauty and historical sites. In some neglected box of childhood mementos, I probably still have the list of stops on that dream tour.

Now, two decades later, I’m hoping to make that trip across the United States but I’ve traded the VW bus for a bicycle. After two and half years at a Chicago law firm I've decided to move into government work. Rather than settle right in to my next job, I’m taking this opportunity to make my cross-country tour a reality. My plan is to start biking the Transamerica Trail on May 7, 2008. This bike route, created over thirty years ago in honor of the country’s bicentennial, runs from Yorktown, Virginia to Astoria, Oregon -- 4,247 miles across ten states. The Transam runs through small town America, which will be a welcome change after spending the last nine years in Chicago. I’ll be riding solo, carrying all of my supplies on my bike, and staying at both campgrounds and motels along the way. The trip is open-ended but I imagine it will take about three months.

This blog will document my travels. An interactive map that can be viewed in Google Maps or Google Earth will chart my progress and link to photos from the Trail. Postings will highlight noteworthy sites, events, and pictures. I will try to post regularly, though I’ll be at the mercy of wireless signals. Over the next few weeks, before I begin my ride, I’ll post a few entries on my preparations.