Cycling. Well, actually, bicycle touring. How is it that these two words describe my lifestyle when, just two years ago, they meant very little to me? I’ve never been a cyclist. I didn’t grow up cycling around with friends after school and I sure as heck had never squeezed myself into spandex and joined a weekend pace line. But I love that because it means that truly anyone can pick up a bicycle and go for a ride, no matter how short or far.
When Simon from Where There’s a Wheel reached out to me to write about cycling, I figured I’d write some tips on how to tour – maybe a memoir from my latest ride through Cuba – or other things I wish I had known when I started. But then, he asked what got me into this sport in the first place, and I thought I’d share my story, because
1). I find myself repeating it to people over and over and realized I’ve never written it down and
2). I think it might encourage a couple more people to pick up a bike and get out on the trails or roads.
So, here we go:
The beginning I never saw coming
It all started when I studied abroad in 2011 and joined a website called Couchsurfing. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s basically the precursor to Airbnb – a way for budget travelers to find a free couch to sleep on while they are on the road. The idea is that, once you return home from a trip, you’ll sign up to host others on their own travels and pay it back (or forward if you host before you are hosted).
Fast forward a couple years, and I’d been host and hostee several times, when two people introduced me to Warm Showers. It’s Couchsurfing’s twin, but for cycling.
I didn’t even know that a bicycle was a viable means of traveling, but sure enough, the first few requests came in and I became infatuated with the romanticized idea of seeing the world from a bicycle seat. It was four British guys that had sent me my very first Warm Showers message, requesting to stay at my apartment in Lincoln as they were passing through Nebraska on a tour across the United States. I was in the middle of finishing my Senior year of college, taking summer classes and quite frankly, feeling stressed out.
So I told them, no, they couldn’t stay. I was busy with work and school.
It was a bit of a white lie – my roommate and I actually had plans to head to a nearby town for a traveler meet up where we’d relax, share stories from the road and get inspiration for future trips. The irony that I told some travelers actually in act of cycling that they couldn’t come because I was busy talking about hypothetical travel with other people in some coffee shop in my own town doesn’t escape me. However, I’d have the opportunity to right my wrong on the way home.
Just as my friend and I were coming back home – lo and behold – we saw an overturned bicycle along the highway…..with three others propped against a fence. They were all loaded down with the unmistakable gear and grit of someone who has been cycling thousands of miles. Hmmm, what were the chances?
Let me say that Lincoln is a fairly small town smack dab in the middle of the United States and isn’t exactly a hub for wayward travelers. So, pretty high.
My roommate and I headed back home where I checked my WS account and had a message that said something along the lines of, “Hey, sorry to message you again, but we need a bike shop and were wondering if you know of someplace we can go?”
So, we got back in the car and went to go pick up our new guests.
I had been wanting my next travels to be slow, long-term, focused on nature and low-cost, but I had been struggling with the logistics of how to pull off such a trip. And now here I was, sitting on the floor of my apartment having beers with a couple of strangers that were doing just that. It seemed like my solution had pedaled right up to my home and knocked on my door. I was in deep before I even set out on my first tour.
I knew I was going to ride a bicycle around the world.
Never mind the fact that I didn’t own a bike.
From that moment, I opened my home to anyone who wanted to stay for a day or two, absorbing stories about what they’d seen and what life was like on a bicycle. I started spending an alarming amount of free time hanging around bike shops and I poured over online forums, gear lists and articles from bloggers that had come before me. It was actually on one such forum that I had met a fellow cyclist whose dream route was to cycle from Alaska to Argentina.
If you follow me at all, you’ll know that idea may have rubbed off on me just a bit.
This new hobby literally changed my route in life. Almost overnight, I went from a Fashion Major ready to move to the Big City after college to an outdoors enthusiast dead set on finding the best places to set up my tent – as far away from civilization as I dared venture. I fell in love with nature, the simplicity of a minimalist life and the meditative effects of cycling. I threw myself into learning other languages and finding a career that allowed me to work remotely as a writer. And, this year, I’ve even made the leap to give up my apartment and travel full-time with my bicycle, laptop and computer.
I’m still very much figuring it all out, but I did recently share an Instagram post that summed up one thing I know for sure, and that answers the question I most frequently get these days:
“Why a bicycle?”
In my experience, there are very few (if any) modes of transportation that make the mere act of transportation an impressive feat, adventure and story within itself. It’s at the same time fast and slow. It’s a pure bliss flow state that takes you both deep into the now and far off into your thoughts. It makes you sit up and take notion of the world around you in a way that other modes just don’t – and plain simply can’t. And, at the end of the day, there is no replacement for the sense of accomplishment and euphoria you get from knowing you achieved that journey with your own volition, physical strength and mental fortitude.
I live for a challenge. I don’t know why, but as a kid, I’d always be the one doing things my own way – which frequently just translated as ‘the hard way.’
Cycling definitely activated that always-looking-for-the-next-challenge gusto in me. With each ride I completed, or weekend tour I went on, I just wanted to see and do more. I wanted to follow the trails and cycle even further into the untouched wilderness than the weekend before. The feeling of packing up everything I need to survive for a few days and cycling out of my driveway is one of anticipation and child-like giddiness. I never know exactly how the ride will unfold, but I always know it will be worth it.
Bicycle touring also gives me the much-needed dose of perspective and grounding that I so often need. An email to my boss seems trivial when I’m cycling through the the storm of the century with 17 mph headwinds and rain pelting my skin so hard it leaves marks, trying to figure out where my friends and I can set up a tent that won’t be carried away in a flash flood (the answer to that particular dilemma was a hotel).
It just gets you up close and personal with life in a way that you can’t help but go full-force, bombing down that hill you see on the horizon or pedaling until your lungs are empty and your legs are aching, all with a huge smile on your face and an adrenaline rush to match.
So, what’s Next?
Well, I had mentioned that I’m in the process of giving up everything I own to hit the road, so it’s the van life for me. I’m also working on some recaps of rides from Catalina, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Death Valley. Lucy (doesn’t everyone’s bike have a name?) and I are mapping out some treks for the year and looking toward Spain and France. And of course, that ride from Alaska to Argentina is never far from my dreams or thoughts.
But part of what I’ve learned this year is that I’m embracing the unplanned as it comes at me, so we’ll just have to see.
Finally, I guess I’ll leave you with some parting wisdom because I had originally set out to write a blog post with tips for touring and because I realized most of the things I learned on a bicycle translate to life, too:
- Keeping your weight down is important, but not at the expense of your quality of life.
- On that note, you probably need less than you think you do to not just survive, but thrive.
- After you pack, toss out at least ¼ of what you were originally going to bring.
- Always drink more water than you think you need.
- Never turn down a warm meal or a shower.
- Your mom was right, don’t forget to re-apply sunscreen every couple of hours.
- Don’t touch that bandana or shovel tied to other people’s packs.
- Those Charades skills have very practical applications when applied to conversations with new foreign friends.
- Always keep your hand, butt or a heavy-duty lock on your bike. If you think it looks nice to you, it probably does to that thief across the sidewalk, too.
- Listen more than you talk to learn about all the good places to eat, camp and explore.