Romantic Bicycle Touring: A Primer
Words and photos by Ultra Romance
You can witness all the beauty there is to see in this fine world: Yanni live at the Acropolis, the Venice beach boardwalk, or simply the Sistine Chapel, for example.
While encountering these wonders alone is undoubtedly inspiring and majestic, these enchanting destinations and undulating waves of road in between are enhanced roughly 70-80% of the time when the experience is shared. Add in the romantic element, and that analytic bumps up to roughly 86%, yet fluctuates down to 20% at times. That’s still pretty good!
With the popularity of bicycle touring on the rise in recent years, and justifiably so, the amount of “I’d rather be doing that” inspirational social media content has increased exponentially. It doesn’t take a masters degree in internet browsing to stumble across countless photos of glossy eyed 86% happy couples posing for duck face selfies with their laden touring rigs amidst a backdrop of the romantic unknown.
I must admit, I have gazed at these photos before, incurring wide eyed dreams of one day waking up in the dirt beside a real, tangible lover. Instead I continued to keep company with the likes of my ol’ faithful laminated 8×10 of Matthew McConaughey, propped up next to my inflatable pillow at night. Even still, I continued to tell myself “Bené, you’re tall, strikingly handsome, muscular, your hair is #1, and you have two amazing Instagram accounts… don’t get greedy, you can’t have it all!” And so I was settled into my ways. Just me and my McCaughey laminate, rubbing woolen elbows with the world and it’s mysteries.
3 years ago I met Nâm. After moving to this country in the 90s, she had grown up nutmeg shoreline, just like me, and just 15 minutes away. Much like myself, she had bounced around for much of her adult life, and through both of our bouncings, we bounced into one another. Right there in nutmeg country. She had been a cyclist for environmental or economical reasons in the past, and certainly had an innate instinct to roam. But still, as our relationship evolved she was in school and could not simply leave for weeks and months on end like the freedoms my fishing job and modeling career afforded me. So that was a bit of a problem at times. I found myself torn between spending more time with the woman I was growing to love, and the lifestyle I knew I already loved. “Bené, your hair is #1. You can’t have it all!”
Well long rom-com story short, I really wanted her to come out and tour with me. After a few test runs last year, and Nâm graduating last spring, we decided that now (2 months ago) was the time. We ended our rental, she quit her job, and we both got rid of a bunch of stuff (not any bike parts tho!) The purging process can be intoxicating and stressful, but mostly intoxicating. Getting rid of all my pewter fantasy figurines was the hardest part for me, personally. Or maybe my hallmark precious moments collection? Or was it my felicity DVDs? Now I’m getting stressed out.
So off we were to the enchanting Southwest with our bikes and gear jammed into cardboard boxes. That’s basically my reality every 3 weeks or so, but for Nâm, this was something entirely new. When introducing a partner to extended touring, this is something that cannot be overlooked. This is the transitioning process from the comforts of modern life, to the gradually learned comforts of modern touring. Things like a Craftmatic adjustable ionized water bed, a fine yogurt sampler platter, and Netflix are suddenly just memories, and the climate controlled biodome which once felt so necessary for adult living is now replaced with fire, sil-nylon, and a sack filled with feathers… but with a view!
For the trip you are viewing photos of currently, I devised a route that would be easy on both the legs and the eyes. That’s not easy to do, as most of the easy eyeball scrambling happens at the tops of things, and to get to the tops of things you know what you have to do. So that part was maybe a little trailing at times, causing and affecting many of the moral fluctuations down to 20% enjoyment levels. I dragged her up a few passes above 13,000 ft, and it took a while, but we did it. However, these experiences did spawn the priceless quote from Nâm: “this is the worst day of my entire life, and I’m a refugee!”
Soooo…. sounds fun, right??? Well here are some helpful tips to get you and yours on the way with 2 tickets to see Yanni LIVE at the Acropolis.
Set realistic goals: It’s way too easy to bite off more than you can chew cuz the idea of seeing all this cool stuff and covering ultra mileage sounds so delicious. Well, in actuality, for a first timer, even a 4th timer, that approach is painful, and morale crushing. Try taking a comfortable mileage that you can do unloaded, and then cut it in half. That’s a realistic goal! Rememberer you are going to be doing this day after day after day on heavy bikes and on little sleep, assuming you aren’t a seasoned ground sleeper. It’s supposed to be fun!
Find camp before dark: When yer mile melting and grooving hard into that fleeting golden light, it’s easy to forget that you are chasing the sun, and the sun always wins. Before you know it, it’s cold and dark, and you have nowhere to sleep. A good camp spot is your reward for a hard day, and for me personally, it’s the best part of touring. This is where you are gonna get yer fire going and cook up yer goulash, do smokables, stare at the fire, and talk about feelings.
This is also where you are gonna sleep, and hopefully for a long time. Sleep is regenerative, without it yer face will resemble a goblin’s and yer body will loathe every mile the following day. You need daylight to insure you find a quiet, flat spot where you can really zzzzz out. Use the satellite function on your google maps, or an offline satellite view app if yer away from service. Look to see if the spot you’ve chosen, or area aiming for is far enough away from any houses, or better yet in a nice stand of trees where you can be stealth and hidden.
In reality there is very little to worry about, but mentally I always find being hidden away does wonders for my overall feeling of safety while camping on the road. Also try and find some cover to sleep under. It will save you a lot of drying time in the morning as dewy nights are inevitable.
Assign camp chores: This happens naturally most of the time. After a few nights you’ll both know what yer good at. In our situation, I prep the food and do the cooking, while Nam gathers and breaks up 10x her body weight in wood. She loves burning things, I like cooking things. So symbiotic! What used to take me hours to do every night alone, now just takes half those hours. That’s nice after a long day.
Apparel: Ride and live in natural fibers. Popular belief is that you need a chamois to ride a bike long distance. This is unfounded, and in reality, an unwashed chamois is a virile Petri dish just waiting to give you an undercarriage boil the size of Donald Trump’s face, yet most likely not as ugly. Get sum merino wool underwear, sum durable shorts, and sit on a hammock style saddle such as a Brooks B17. You won’t have to wash yer clothes really, and you can figure out for yourself how comfortable you are with that.
Cleanliness: My program every night is to hang my clothes and get em smoked out by the fire. Burning pine produces antimicrobial smoke that will “clean” yer already naturally antimicrobial wool clothing. The crux of my grooming program is hovering my bare undercarriage over the fire as it reduces to embers at the end of the night. We call this “cauterizing”. It might sound novel, but practically everyone I’ve turned onto this technique swears by it. It makes sure everything is dry down there before you tuck in for the night. Feels sooooo good too! Trust me!
Pack light: My first tour was on a mountain bike with an prototype extra cycle attached to the rear. It was a questionable set up, prone to mechanicals… but in my defense, there were very few resources available back then to show me the ways to be #cool.
I had all my things in trash bags, including such seemingly necessary items as: 3 pairs of jeans, 32 oz of lotion, a 50 slot case logic CD book, and 2 Nalgene bottles of self serve peanut butter. I survived off peanut butter, had soft skin, and looked great in those jeans, but all is pointless if yer day to day is the drudgery of hauling a 100lb bike over mountain passes and into remote camp spots. Plus if yer bike is overloaded, then yer likely to have 2-3 times the mechanicals.
You don’t need much out there, and that’s part of the beauty of the experience. That being said, you can always pack what you want and just ship stuff you don’t end up needing home as you wiggle along on yer trip. I suggest you abide by the rule: if you have 4 panniers full of stuff, you may have too much stuff. Only Germans take that much stuff.
Budget: touring can be the cheapest way you’ve ever lived, or it can be a hedonist expression of hotel, spa, and restaurant receipts. Both are fine! For the budget traveler, I recommend steering clear of restaurants, and instead spending money on nutrient density from the local co-op. You want high calorie for your dollar kinda stuff. Don’t spend $4 on coffee when you can buy a pound of quinoa for that money and have nearly a day’s worth of food! Also learn to forage. If you eat vegetables, they can be found for free sprouting from just about every roadside. I’ll have a guide to this stuff coming out soonish.
Navigation: Don’t let my sprightly age of 21 years fool you, I began touring long before the digital age. Paper maps were fun, and I used to spend my nights pouring over the next day’s ride while zipped up in my sleeping bag before bed. Now my nights are spent editing photos, ‘grammin, ordering pizzas, watching HBO, and route plotting on 1 of my 3 digital devices that have been drawing power from both my solar chargers and dynamo hub all day. This modern world!
So as someone who has lived through the analog and digital age of travel, I can honestly say: you gotta get a GPS! Wrong turns can be whimsically adventurous and all, but they get old pretty fast after you’ve gone in circles enough to get dizzy. I have used routing apps on my phone for shorter trips with fewer turns, but that method is not purpose built, and will drain yer precious battery before you even get to the woods. And then you can’t ‘gram… so why bother?
For this trip I used an amalgam of the discontinued Garmin Touring Plus (still found cheaply on eBay), Ride With GPS on my phone with the same route pre loaded, and a paper map if all went wrong. I don’t always use paper maps, but with a beginner on board, I didn’t wanna scar her for life with a costly helicopter extraction if our electronics went Samsung on us.
Epilogue: In closing, I really just want the bicycle trends to continue building stewardship for the outdoors the best way I know how: through self supported immersion in nature, whether it be a weekend in yer back yard, or for a month in the mountains. If done properly, the pace of life is likely exactly what you are looking for. You will return with renewed vitality and perspective on what you need and don’t need in your life. A refreshing doctrine on the ever weirdening world swirling around us. We can all use that from time to time, if not all the time. I just wanna be sure it’s done sustainably and not just as a fad. The best way to do that is to ensure that you are prepared and don’t get caught up in making it into sum kinda “epic” triathlon mindset thing for adventurous golfers.
I get a lot of questions on how to best approach these kinda trips, so hopefully the above tips answer whatever questions the questioners might question.
Happy trails/roads/camps! XOXO