I’m getting ready for my first bike tour of the season. After a long winter, northeast weather has finally shaped up on a weekend I have free, and so my travel partner Eoin and I will take to the backcountry roads and make our way from downtown Philadelphia to Surf City NJ and back. It’s about 140 miles round trip, or about 70 miles per day.
When I tell people about the bike trips I do, they look at me like I’m crazy. Sometimes it’s more than a look - they tell me I’m crazy. “But that’s only two hours by car!” I was told recently by a friend. “I could never do that!” said a coworker.
Both of these comments are wrong in their own way; the latter is factually incorrect and the former misses the point. Yes, you can get to Surf City in two hours from Philadelphia in a car. In fact, you can do it in an hour and a half. But the goal when touring isn’t the destination, it’s the experience of the journey - seeing the landscape fade between urban and rural, exploring new places at a mentally digestible pace, and seeing the parts of America not homogenized by the Interstate Highway System. It’s fun, and anyone can do it.
Since I think a lot of the confused responses I get from people about my touring hobby stems from them not knowing what what it is, I thought I’d take some time to write up an explanation of bike touring. Read on, and as I complete the tour over the course of the weekend, I am going to update this with our experiences.
Touring for Dummies
Bike touring is traveling long distances by bike. This sounds simple, but can be done many ways. Some people travel with a crew helping them - these are usually charity fundraisers of some sort - while others are self supported. Some carry lots of gear with them, others travel unloaded, staying in hotels and buying anything they need along the way.
I’m an advocate of self-supported, loaded touring. I’ve had the opportunity to participate in supported tours, but in my opinion, that takes a lot of the adventure out of it. I enjoy touring because there is planning and unexpected challenges that come up that test your versatility. With an inflexible route and a support crew, there is none of that. You just bike along the dotted line on the map. At my local gym there is a cycling machine with a high-def LCD screen that makes it look like you’re biking outside. I don’t use this machine for the same reason that I don’t do supported touring.
Loaded touring is bike backpacking. But it’s better than backpacking, because you can cover a lot more distance and since you rarely stray far from civilization, you don’t have to carry several days worth of food (provided you’re willing to occasionally deign to consume food of the fast variety). Camping is fun and seems cheaper than hotels, although I’m sure if I compared the amount of money I’ve spent on camping gear to the cost of your average rural motel times the number of nights I’ve been camping, it would be a wash.
What roads do you take?
This is always one of the first questions I get about touring. People act like interstates are the only way to get around. This notion is logical - while the Interstate Highway system accounts for around 1% of the total road mileage in America, almost a third of our miles are logged there. Most people know only the streets around their city and the interstates to escape it. Beyond that, well, that’s what Garmin is for.
So while the 46 thousand miles of the Interstate Highway system are off limits1, there are over 4 million miles of roads that criss-cross the country, a vast majority of them imminently bikeable. The problem is, of course, that there is no way to determine a road’s bike friendliness from a map. Roads are weight-coded according to the density of their traffic, but what about their shoulder? This information is oddly omitted.
To solve this problem, many bike organizations make maps specifically for touring cyclists. The most prominent, the Adventure Cycling Association, sells maps of popular, bike friendly routes all around the country. The maps include detailed map sections and cue sheets for travel in either direction, with details about other bikable roads and alternative routes if you want to take them.
However, just because we ride a 19th century invention doesn’t mean we want to use 19th century navigational tools. So in March of last year, Google helped us leapfrog into the 21st by adding biking directions to Google Maps. Now, whenever you get directions, a simple click of a button generates a bike friendly route which not only includes roads but bike trails and lanes in most US cities.
There are problems. On one occasion, Google directed me onto a collapsed bridge, and on several others it put me on what can only very loosely be called bike paths. One seemed more like a sand pit. The main problem is that while Google Maps understands bikes, it doesn’t understand that not all bikes are the same. A road bike cant ride on gravel, period. There needs to be a way you can tell it to avoid these types or paths.
But I nitpick. Overall, the new biking directions have been a boon to touring cyclists. They have opened up tons of new places to explore, and Saturday morning, Eoin and I are doing just that. We’ll be traveling through the Pine Barrens in New Jersey and then to the coast where we will dip our feet in the water before turning our bikes around and heading back to Philadelphia. I hope to continue to blog the trip as we travel or, failing that, I will post time-delayed updates once I get home.
1. This is yet another area that American Exceptionalism is at risk - this year, China is set to overtake the US in the size of it’s intercity expressway system, their equivalent of our Interstate Highway program.