My girlfriend Katie recently bought me two panier bags for my road bike. After I got a rack for the back of the bike, I was daydreaming of the faraway places I could tour. But because I had only ever ridden for short distances in the city, I still had many questions: Would my 20-year-old Schwinn and its narrow tires hold up to the rigors of long-distance travel? Were 12 speeds enough to power me through steep hills? Would my legs be able to handle biking more than ten miles at a time?
As with most things in life, the best way to find out would be to try it and see what happens. Opportunity struck when the Hoofers Mountaineering Club reserved a group campsite at Devil's Lake, about 40 miles from my house in Madison. Katie liked the idea of biking to the lake (why else would she have bought me those panier bags?) and was eager to come along for the ride.
I bought food for the trip, packed the paniers with most of my camping gear and threw the rest into my backpack, which I balanced across the back of my rack. Then I tied the backpack down with some rope and started pedaling. I was pretty sure my tires would blow as soon as I got out of the garage, but I had a backup plan. The first leg of my trip was a ten-mile ride to Katie's work. If I had trouble during that stretch, I could abort the mission and we'd drive to the lake instead.
Carrying an extra 40 pounds made it difficult to keep my bike stable at slow speeds and impossible to pedal as fast as I normally would. But the tires held up, my rope rigging remained tight and I made it to Katie's work without a hitch.
Katie gave me a delicious homemade fruit roll-up, which provided me with a bit of extra energy for the long ride ahead. A janitor who works at her school wished us good luck from the driver's seat of his rumbling diesel truck and we took off.
Our route started down a flat bike path. The only real issue was that we faced a strong headwind, which I hadn't considered while packing. About eight miles into our ride, we left the bike path and followed highway P, which was both hilly and full of traffic. I spent most of my time in my bike's lowest gear and had to walk up one of the hills.
Eventually we reached highway 113, which had even more traffic and no paved shoulder. Traffic constantly zoomed past us at 55 MPH, often only giving us a foot of leeway. Not that I blamed the drivers – the road wasn't wide enough for cars and bicycles to safely coexist. We stopped at the farmer's market in Lodi, where Katie got me a much-needed large cookie and I put the traffic issues behind me.
On the Merrimac Ferry, we met two other cycle-tourists who were far more experienced than us with fancy 27-speed touring bicycles. One of them told us that the back roads were the way to go when riding to the lake – even though they added a few miles to the ride, they were almost devoid of traffic. The bicycle instructions on Google Maps didn't take this into consideration.
After crossing the river, we completed the final leg of our journey down some back roads and up several more steep hills. We made it to the campsite tired, but not completely exhausted. The ride proved a good warmup for longer trips.
For the ride home the next afternoon, I got smarter and offloaded most of my gear with a friend who had driven to the lake. With a lighter load, the wind at our backs, and an overall downhill ride, getting back was far easier. We avoided the highways and were able to take in the tranquil scenery of Wisconsin farmland. With no flat tires or mechanical issues with our bikes, the trip was a great success.
Here are some lessons I learned on this trip:
– Biking is a lot more difficult with 40 pounds of gear than without. Extra gears on my bike would've come in handy on the steep hills of Wisconsin's driftless region.
– Avoid roads that have letters or numbers for names. Especially avoid roads that have names starting with I-. Stick to bike paths when possible.
– The maps on iPhones suck. They don't show the names of roads until you're zoomed in so far that you can no longer tell where you are. Then you zoom back out and lose track of where you were supposed to go. Throw your phone away or at least pack it deep in your backpack so you're not tempted to look at this useless device for guidance.
– Google's maps are better than Apple's but still need work. Their algorithm for suggesting bicycle routes appears to be 'use the optimal car route and pretend that freeways and divided highways don't exist.' This is a decent staring point, but you'll have to put a lot more thought into planning your route if you want it to be as enjoyable as possible. I know it's the 21st century, but paper maps are still superior.
– Bikes loaded with gear attract a lot of attention. Everyone you meet will want to know how far you've gone and where you're going. If you like attention, you should consider strapping a massive duffel bag full of balloons on the back of your bike and pretend you're riding across the country. You will be much admired for this.
– Cycling takes longer than driving but it heightens your senses. You'll see, feel, hear and smell so much more than you possibly could while sealed from the environment in a car. Once you experience this, you'll want to bike everywhere.