This week marks the ninth that we have been riding. We left Homer, Alaska, in early July, and since then we have cycled a little over 2300 miles, up through the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska to Denali, east to the Canadian border, through the Yukon Territory, and then south in British Columbia to Prince Rupert. There, we hopped a ferry to Vancouver Island, then another over to the Sunshine Coast, which we rode into Vancouver. After a short city fix, we crossed the border into the Lower 48 where we peddled, again south, through Washington. I am writing this post from Astoria, in the northern part of the Oregon coast. In many ways, this first major section of our trip has felt as brief as the description above.
At the same time, our first two thousand miles and two months of riding has been a lot about figuring out how this whole bike touring thing works. Before this trip, I’d done one short tour (250 miles, 5 days) from the east side of Michigan to the west. Chris had a little more experience than me, (one 1200 miler, and a few overnight excursions) but still nothing like the scale of what we have set out to do on this trip. In the months before we left, lots of people asked us what training we had done to prepare for our venture. We’d always wave them off: How can you train for such a thing? Short of loading up our bikes and heading out for some long multi-day rides, we weren’t sure how to physically train. Our thinking was that the first month of riding would serve as the “training”, and given that we are generally fit and active people, we would be fine. I had done some psychological preparation – taking my bike out on a few longer rides, building up over a several weeks to a 60 miler. On Utah hills this length of ride is no joke, but still – it was a single day of riding, with next to no weight on my bike, and I came home exhausted and dying for a good long soak in the bath. I certainly didn’t have to spend time at the end of the day procuring water and food, find a place to camp, wash in a cold stream, and then get up and do it all again the next day…clearly, in many ways, I was deeply unprepared for what we were about to do.
During our first week we traveled from Homer to Girdwood in Alaska, riding consecutive days of 35, 45, 50, and then 60 miles. Fully loaded with gear, my bike weighs around 85 pounds and Chris, who packs all our food, is carrying well over 100 pounds. At the end of our fourth day, we limped into Girdwood, very much in need of the two-day rest we had planned. The following week we rode similar distances, but this time on dirt roads in Denali, with huge climbs and descents, and we were similarly beaten when we emerged from the park at the end of week two. By the third week, back on asphalt, we were starting to feel stronger. We clocked our first 75-mile day, and since then we have settled into a pretty solid rhythm of riding around 250 miles a week. We aim to cover around 50 miles a day (more or less, depending on where food, water and good campsites might be located), with one or two zero or “nero” (nearly zero) days interspersed into our week.
For the most part I feel physically good. My legs feel strong, and my body seems to be coping pretty well with the general discomforts of daily riding and living on the road. Both Chris and I have gone through – and thankfully come out of the other side of – saddle sore and various rashes; in a campsite in the border town of Tok, Alaska, a woman commented, after watching Chris and I pass talc to each other between showers: “Anyone who trades baby powder that feverishly must be on a long bike trip!” These sorts of ailments are the inevitable toll of moving your body – hour after hour, day after day – in the same limited way. Thankfully for us, they have led only to minor and temporary discomfort. A few weeks ago, however, I had my first real physical scare of the trip. An old back injury, that I have been successfully managing since my early twenties, flared up. While sleepily stretching in our tent one morning, I tweaked my back, and for all of the rest of the day, I couldn’t walk, bend, sit or even lie down without pain. I spent that day with my mind in all sorts of dark places, wondering what I’d do if chronic back pain meant I had to abandon our ride. It’s the only time since starting the trip that I’d contemplated the possibility of not finishing. Bizarrely, riding my bike seemed to be the only thing that didn’t bother my back, and so we peddled gently on. Ever since we left St George in May, I’ve been diligently doing a Pilates workout – one specially designed for me by a fabulous Pilates instructor there – a couple of times a week to try to counter the extra strain I’m going to be putting my body under. I think (nay, hope) it’s working, as this seems to have been just a temporary blip, and my back has returned to its normal state of only occasionally grumbling about what I ask of it. The whole episode was a really stark reminder that a relatively small physical injury could completely change the trajectory of the next two years, and the importance of making sure we make time to look after our bodies in whatever ways they might need as we cycle across two continents. Overall, I am pleased (and more than a little proud) that so far I have risen to the physical challenge of what we’re doing. At the times that I doubt my ability to keep up with the incessantly energetic and athletic Chris, it helps to remind myself that with only nine weeks of ‘training’ under my belt, I’ll keep on getting fitter and stronger for several more months to come. I’m sure over the next two years I’ll experience a whole variety of physical stages and changes that I can’t yet imagine – hopefully most of them healthy, positive ones. If only I could forget the words of one good friend, who on hearing about our plans exclaimed: “Your vagina will never be the same again!” …
Settling into the psychological rhythm of a long-term bike tour has been a whole different challenge. I find that if I think too hard (or too closely, perhaps) about what we are doing – anything like what our trip involves in its entirety – it seems like an utterly ridiculous thing to do. The idea of riding nearly every day, and camping nearly every night, for two years is completely overwhelming. On the odd occasion that I look at a map of the world, and try to comprehend (me!) biking from the top of the globe to the bottom, it makes me want to simultaneously laugh and cry! Thinking about what we are doing on a day to day basis is the only way it feels even close to possible. We joke to ourselves that it just a 50-mile bike ride, 400 times. Easy! But it’s not, even. Doing 50-mile bike ride on any given day can involve some serious mental gymnastics for me. I’ve noticed a pattern to my internal chatter that follows a predictable course throughout the day. It goes something like this:
First 10 miles: The distance we are riding is too far; my legs are too tired from yesterday’s ride. I just don’t think I can do it today. I must think of a way to convince Chris that we need to slow down, or preferably stop altogether.
Middle 10 to 40 or so miles: My body feels amazing! I feel like an athletic super star! This is the strongest my legs have ever felt, and I can ride like this ALL day…I wish he’d speed up….I can go much faster than this. I think I’m finally ready for that 100 mile day!!
Last 10 miles: I cannot possibly go on. This whole trip is a ridiculous method of torture. What was I thinking?! I don’t think I have ever felt this tired. I will perhaps just sleep here by the side of the road. Hopefully the feeling in my fingers will return one day.
It doesn’t matter how far we are riding (20, 50 or 80 miles); the first hour and the last hour of the day – in which my brain teems with negative commentary – are a huge psychological effort for me. I have a pink band mounted to the handlebars of my bike on which is written “harden the fuck up”. It was given to me as a leaving gift by a good friend who runs ultra-marathons, and it helps me a lot during these times. Fortunately, the middle part of the day – which comprises most of my day – is when riding my bike across two continents feels like a fantastic thing to be doing. Critically, it’s all I seem to remember when I go to sleep at night and when I wake up in the morning.
An experienced bike tourer we met early in our trip advised us to “finish strong” each day. I’m pretty sure what he meant was to always ride less than you are capable of riding, so that you finish each day feeling good. We aren’t very good at doing this. Instead, we have taken it to mean ‘ride until you are completely exhausted and then shout aggressively at yourself “finish strong” as you drag into camp at the end of the day’. We are working on this, as I’m sure it’s not a sustainable long-term approach. In order for us to keep this up for two years and not to end up hating it (or worse, hating each other), we need to find a balance between riding and doing all the other things we need and want to do. Remember that in addition to being on the bikes 4-10 hours each day, we have to plan a route, decide where to camp and find time to eat nearly twice as a normal person. We also speak to dozens of strangers, and hopefully through this, we will forge some new and meaningful friendships along the way. At the same time, it’s really important for me to sustain meaningful relationships with existing
friends and family during the time we are away. We are also trying to find the balance of riding versus resting, and how to decide when to stay in places we like versus leaving to discover the next new thing. And last but certainly not least, we are trying to navigate how to spend time together while not on bikes, as well as making sure we get enough time apart. Clearly, finding the right balance and rhythm to all of these things is going to take us the best part of our two-year journey.