The Tour Diaries: Getting there, part 2

Ogallala, Nebraska

Chimney Rock, near Scottsbluff, Nebraska.

Day 3, from Livingston, Montana to Ogallala, Nebraska. Arrived just after dark, no thanks to Cato, our GPS, who kept trying to get us to I-80 instead of the much shorter US26, but we ignored him and pressed on, arriving a half-hour before he predicted via the “fast” route. The maps are apparently to an alternate universe, where the Super 8 is located where the county road maintenance yard is in our universe, and Denny’s is a Country Kitchen in the alternate reality.

Snow in New England, torrential rains in Florida.  Hmm.  Nice time for a bike tour…

The Tour Diaries: getting to the tour start, part 1

If we are not ready for bike touring now, it is too late.  In our second attempt at riding an Adventure Cycling Association tour this year (our first we canceled the day before the tour, outlined in an earlier post), we are finally underway to the starting location, a week away.

We left Chaos Central in chaos, naturally, with the big relandscaping project underway.  Our last “training ride” was on Tuesday, when we rode with The Pedal Powered Family as far as the Buck’s Prairie Store, about 20Km out on the Cloquallum Road toward Elma.

The Pedal Powered Family getting underway.

We parted company as Harper helped mom fix her tire, which had picked up a tiny wire somewhere between Poulsbo and the Bainbridge Ferry last week.

Mom, are you sure these pulley cogs on the Rohloff hub aren't worn?

We made a loop back to Shelton on Highland Road and the Shelton-Matlock Road, zooming to 50Kph on the downhill into town.

Later, we found that the Key West-to-Fort Myers ferry we are scheduled to take on our tour doesn’t take tandems. So, we experimented with “crunching” the Mean Green Machine to disguise it as a single bike, but still able to restore to rideable condition in a few minutes.

The Mean Green Machine, crunched down to single-bike size to fit the Key West ferry

Satisfied that we could get through that hurdle on our bike trip, we packed the bike and our camping equipment. Friday, we dropped the cat at the cat hotel and headed east, stopping for the night at Judy’s brother’s in Eastern Washington.

Saturday was a busy day, starting at dawn with an icy drive through Spokane. By the time we reached Idaho, the temperature had risen above freezing and the roads dried. We stopped for lunch in Missoula with a client and then on to the Lubrecht Experimental Forest Conference Center to drop off quilts at the Bitterroot Quilters Guild fall retreat. The route back to I-90 took us east on MT 200 to MT 141, which we hadn’t driven before. We enjoyed a beautiful Montana fall day, with the larch and cottonwoods in full color. Darkness caught us in Bozeman and we stopped in Livingston for the night, a bit short of our goal of Billings. But, we have a few hours leeway in our week-long transit.

Warm Showers, Cold Rain

October is nearly over.  In the Pacific Northwest, this signals the end of the rainy season and the start of the monsoon season.  Fall comes slowly here: leaves begin to turn, then fall into a soggy mass.  Colors are muted by the pervasive gloom as the moist air from the Pacific condenses over the cooling mountains and valleys of the upper left-hand corner of the map.  Ski enthusiasts are checking their gear and waxing their skis.  The bicycle department at REI has been displaced to the back of the store by shiny ski boots and bulky cold-weather clothing.

Yet, here at Chaos Central, as we prepare to head southeast to warmer bicycle touring climes, we see an unabated stream of bicycle tourists, chasing the last vestiges of Indian Summer south toward California.  The last Adventure Cycling tour passed through in late September.  The self-supported stragglers now, at the end of Daylight Savings Time, face headwinds, rain, and quickly shortening days.  As members of Warmshowers, a bicycle tourist lodging exchange, we try not to turn folks away, but we fret over their arrival and worry about their welfare after they leave.

The combination of wind, rain, and temperatures Celsius ranging from a bone-numbing 4 degrees to a high of 10 degrees (50 F) sap energy and drop daily progress to little more than half of normal.  Hypothermia and the onset of darkness far short of the goal are very real dangers for the unwary bicycle tourist.  What promises to be an adventure of a lifetime becomes a matter of survival.  The siren song of the open road impairs judgement.

The Unix Curmudgeon has been a bicycle commuter, off and on, since 1976, riding to work in rain, snow, ice, cold, and darkness, despite being an otherwise fairly cautious person.  The bicycle as transport becomes an obsession, a validation of principle by example.  In recent years, practical considerations–like the goal of “getting very, very old, very, very slowly”–have tempered the issue, helped along by the attitude of the tandem stoker (aka The Nice Person).  The Nice Person’s attitude is this: if we are on tour, we accept the weather, but we plan for the likelihood of good weather.  When we are training, if it is raining, we go to the gym.  Indeed, during 12 years of living in Montana, we chose to live where it was not only convenient to bike to work, but also possible to walk to work on icy days when riding was impractical.

As readers of previous articles know, we recently invested in a Bike Friday tandem.  Other than a systems upgrade to avoid getting caught on the road without ready availability of parts for our classic 1980s Santana, the Traveler Q can be packed into its trailer and checked as baggage or shipped on almost any public transit facility, giving us options to tour anywhere without having to ride there first or having to plan closed-circuit routes.  It also gives us the option of bypassing inclement weather without abandoning our schedules, something we did in 1988 when we had our son drive sag for us on a Rocky Mountain tour that devolved into days of cold and blustery rain: we simply loaded up the bike and moved on up our route until the weather cleared.

We’ve also aborted or modified planned rides in late fall and early spring along the Trail of the Coeur d’ Alenes when there was very real danger of hypothermia on an isolated trail.  We’ll go back and finish the ride someday–it’s still a goal.   Meanwhile, we got to ride the part of the Centennial Trail along Lake Coeur d’ Alene–in pouring rain, but it was in an area with lots of other people, and by moving on in bad weather to a different start point, we got a 60-mile ride on the most scenic part of the trail in decent weather instead of a 30-mile ride in freezing rain, and the prospect of a 30-mile ride back to the car the next day in wet gear.

So, to all the bike tourists among you, we leave this advice–the goal is not to “get there,” but to live to ride another day.  And, if you have a mother, to not make her worry justifiably.  The bicycle, like the airplane, is an excellent transportation mode, but even airliners are grounded in severe weather.  If you are chasing weather, or it is chasing you, there is no defeat in jumping around it or ahead of it.  After all, the bicycle is not only transportation, but transportable.

Pre-Tour Shakedown: our first loaded overnight bike tour in 20 years

It had been a month since our last bike ride, not counting an aborted short checkout that resulted in a readjustment of our shift cables, and it’s only two weeks before we leave on our second attempt this year to go on a long bicycle tour.  On Friday, the weather report was optimistic for the weekend, after the onset of the fall drizzle and downpours, prelude to November storms common in the Pacific Northwest.  So, we decided to combine some additional bike training with our monthly outing to the Ruby Street art quilting group.

Saturday dawned cloudy as usual, but we hoped it would burn off.  We loaded the trailer with our camping equipment, adding a stove and teapot for some limited cooking ability (our tour has the cooking gear provided by the Adventure Cycling folks).  We chose to start off downhill to make sure we were mechanically sound, and to take advantage of the wide shoulders on US101 to get used to towing the trailer.

Yes, the 100-pound trailer does make a bit of difference uphill.  Think carrying a pair of large loaded suitcases up 25 flights of stairs: several times.  During the bike tuneup, I had also installed our bike computer–recalibrated for the small 20×1.5 tires–as well as map case and headlights.  The readings seemed to be fairly accurate, showing us climbing at 4.7 to 5.0 mph and zooming downhill at 25-30mph, with the rare flat or gently rolling stretches at 11-15mph, which translates into a solid 9mph average speed, about the same as our unloaded average.

As usual, we exit on the frontage roads and bypass the high-speed freeway exchanges, stopping at the Little Creek Casino for rest and water, then on to the Subway at the Steamboat Island exit, where we leave the freeway and head down the rolling Madrona Beach Road.  Climbing out of Mud Bay is a 3-stop challenge, then a fruit stop at the market before winding through West Olympia, uphill past the mall, through a neighborhood and a bike path shortcut to Cooper Point Road, across US101 and along the frontage road, working our way over the shoulder of the hill to the Tumwater Fred Meyer/Costco complex, where we fuel up and refill our water bottles before taking the pedestrian walkway across I-5 to the Tumwater High School complex, then south, winding around the west side of the Olympia Airport and into the countryside to Millersylvania State Park.

The park is in winter season, so there are only 11 tent sites open, right next to the RV sites.  We pick one with a fairly flat and rock-free tent space.  We later find that the primitive sites ($12 as opposed to the $22 car sites) were open, but very close to the group site, occupied this weekend by a troop of Boy Scouts.  The park, like many in western Washington, is dark and damp, in deep forest.

Campsite #2, Millersylvania State Park
Campsite #2, Millersylvania State Park, October 15, 2011

When we first outfitted for this year’s bike tour, we packed our old biking tent, a tiny 1-2 person affair.  However, on our last trip to REI to retool for self-supported touring, we got talked into a new Half-dome 2+ model, on sale.  It isn’t much bigger in the pack, but very roomy inside, extra long, and has two side-opening entrances, with a nice covered vestibule area each side.  Our old 1985 ThermaRest pads have suffered the ravages of time and no longer self-inflate well, and we didn’t use the tire pump to boost them, so the ground is a bit cold and hard.  We had resisted buying a pair of new pads, which are now much thicker but no larger in the pack.  We may rethink this decision in the next couple of weeks…

Darkness falls deep in the woods, and we didn’t bring a hatchet to make kindling, so we pass up the firewood bundles most other campers bought and turn in early, a bit sore from the effort of towing our 100 pounds of camp gear 34 miles in hilly country.  And well we do as the rumble and stink of RVs coming in at 11:00pm and 2:00am disrupt our sleep.  So much for “quiet time” in camp.

In the morning, we have a leisurely breakfast, pack up, and leave about 10:00am, as we only have about nine miles to go for our noon meeting in Tumwater.  We retrace our outbound route, except keeping to the east of I-5 for a short diversion to the quilt shop, which is conveniently located next to a Starbucks, where we refuel and catch up on email.  Part of the modern bike touring load is, of course, at least a netbook computer.

After the meeting, we head toward home, enjoying the long downhill from the Steamboat Island area that was such a long grind up the day before.  Again, we take the exit at WA 108, crossing over to the on-ramp, to avoid the 60+mph merging traffic.  Exiting at WA3, with afternoon shadows lengthening, we turn on our red blinker lights on both the bike and the trailer for the hilly, curvy last few miles home.

A hot shower and a hot meal later, we assess our situation: are we ready for a 400-mile tour?  Maybe: the hills of the Olympic Peninsula are daunting, but the flats are hard after a long day, too.  We need to ride (unloaded) a couple more times, rain or no rain.  A month ago, we were ready for 40-50 mile days, unloaded.  Now, after a month off the bike, we aren’t sure we are ready for 60-75 mile days with the trailer behind.  But, we do have a couple of short or rest days on our tour, and riding often does get one in shape, so we are still looking forward to the trip.