Last month fate (and couchsurfing.org) brought a special guest to my door. I’m normally very selective about who I choose to host on couchsurfing, perusing their profile and references with care, but when I got Victoria’s request, I couldn’t email her back fast enough. Riding from Boston to LA by bike? on her own? In four months? this was a person I wanted to have a conversation with.
Intelligent and inspiring, Victoria did not disappoint. It only took a few minutes’ conversation for me to feel comfortable enough to invite her to a girls’ night with a good friend of mine — and to know that I wanted to share her story with LGRAB readers. So I emailed her a few questions, asking her to answer as time permitted from the road. For more on Victoria’s epic ride (as I write, she’s made it to Texas!) check out her blog.
What inspired you to take this trip?
Generally I just love adventure and long-distance feats of endurance. I’ve done a couple week-long hiking trips, a two-mile ocean swim in New England in November (brrrr!), and attempted to walk 100K in one day with my brother (I only finished half of it before my body shut down on me.)
I can pinpoint a couple of sources of inspiration for the cross-country bike tour specifically:
- I started using my bike for transportation when I moved to Boston for college in 1994, and found I really enjoyed getting around on a bike.
- I grew up just off Route 20, the longest road in the US, which goes from Boston to Oregon and has all kinds of cool little towns and tourist attractions along it. I always thought it would be fun to travel the whole thing, either by biking or driving really slowly.
- I have an uncle who rode horseback from our hometown in upstate New York to Wyoming. Sort of captures your imagination when you’re 8 years old.
Tell us about your touring setup (bike, panniers, etc.) and how you chose it.
I have only ever ridden mountain bikes around the city, and knew nothing about road bikes or touring when I started preparing for this trip. I got online and did some research, mostly reading other people’s blogs and equipment lists, and came up with a list of Things to Care About When Bike Touring. These included:
- A steel frame – heavier, but sturdier.
- Good touring wheels and flat-resistant tires, somewhere in the range of 28-35mm
- Fenders to keep the water and mud off you
- A strong rear rack
- Most importantly: a Brooks saddle. They are leather and actually conform to your butt over time. Everyone swears by these and now that I’ve been on the road a while, I do too! It’s SO comfortable and I have not had a single saddle sore.
- Waterproof panniers and handlebar bag. I settled on the very large and roomy Ortlieb BikeTourer model—a little more expensive than the others, but I love them.
Once I assembled this list, I started popping into bike shops around town and asking them to help. Unfortunately, the moment I told them I’d be riding across the country, they would start trying to set me up with the fanciest, top-of-the-line, most expensive version of everything, quoting me anywhere from $3-5K for a custom-built bike and gear! This seemed pretty outlandish to me.
So one night I was at a bar and randomly struck up conversation with a guy who’d ridden 1200 miles all around Ireland and Scotland, on a used bike that he picked up for a couple hundred dollars 25 years ago. He still rides this same bike 20 miles a day. This inspired me to start hunting around on Craigslist for better deals, and to eventually visit Bikes Not Bombs, a non-profit that refurbishes old bikes and uses the proceeds to do all kinds of cool stuff to promote biking in the community.
It was my lucky day. The guy told me that they almost never have used touring bikes in my size (I’m 5’2″) but that day they did: a Japanese model, dating from the early 80’s I’m guessing, called the Kuwuhara SuperTour. I tried it out. It was terribly uncomfortable, but I chalked that up to my not being at all used to the geometry. But, it fit, and it was cheap, so I got it!
I had them add the fenders, Brooks saddle, and the rack. I also had them put another set of brake levers on the top of the handlebars so that I could have two different hand positions.
(like most pictures in this post, this one is from Victoria’s Flickr stream)
I made the controversial choice NOT to use clipless pedals and cycling shoes, and have been perfectly happy with that choice for 2100 miles now. My thinking was that since I have limited space to carry footwear, I want shoes that can serve multiple purposes. I eventually sent my sneakers home, leaving me with one pair of shoes, which in my opinion are the be-all end-all shoes for bike touring: Merrell Waterpro Pandi water shoes. I have biked, hiked, and swum in these shoes and they’re great for everything. They dry out fast, and even when they’re wet you can throw a pair of wool socks on and your feet stay warm anyway. They also look cute enough to go out on the town!
How did you plan your itinerary?
Well, the Route 20 plan wasn’t going to work out, since I left in the fall and it is a northern route. So I planned to head southwest and finish in Los Angeles instead, where I have a few good friends. In between, I picked a route that would take me through as many cities and states I had not been to as possible, including West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Arizona.
I’ve purposely kept the exact route loosely planned though. I’ve found it very helpful to ask the locals as I go what routes are best for biking and what interesting attractions there are along the way. I use CouchSurfing.org and a handy application called CampWhere on my iPhone to find people to crash with and campgrounds along the way, so these often dictate my route between major cities.
What’s the most common reaction you get from people when you tell them what you’re doing?
By far the most common reaction is a blend of shock and admiration that I am a woman doing this by myself. In urban areas, people ask if I’m carrying mace or pepper spray (I am). In rural areas, they ask if I’m carrying a gun.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen so far?
Oh, it’s really hard to choose. Some of my favorite places have included an organic produce farm, a corn maze with crazy homemade musical instruments hidden inside it, a bee farm, an amazing indoor climbing gym with a network of caves built into the walls, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, a waterfall pool I swam in at Ohiopyle State Park in Pennsylvania, Carter Caves State Park and Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, and the historic bathhouses in Hot Springs, Arkansas. But the best part is meeting all sorts of wonderfully interesting people along the way.
You spend nights camping or couchsurfing. Any weird stories? (as long as they’re not about me!)
CouchSurfing has been nothing but excellent. Everyone I have stayed with has been a kind, thoughtful, and awesome host. I love camping too, but had a couple of slightly less than ideal camping scenarios. In one instance, I was the only person at a campground off a bike trail that runs along the bottom of a canyon in Pennsylvania. I was psyched to have the whole place to myself, until I was drifting off to sleep and heard a barking sound, really close by, that was definitely not a dog. I had no idea what it was, probably a coyote or a fox. I know these animals don’t normally bother humans, but that didn’t stop me from lying awake, paralyzed, clutching my can of pepper spray. (It works on wild animals too!)
Another time I got stranded in the woods with nothing around for miles, so I pulled off down a dirt road, found a little clearing, and set up camp. It turned out I was a quarter mile from a railroad track, and due to the acoustics of the valley, every time a train passed through it sounded like someone was driving a four-wheeler past my tent. It was kind of horrible.
When and why did you decide to start commuting by bike? What do you ride?
I got my first Trek mountain bike when I graduated high school, rode it all over the place that summer, and found it really convenient to get around Boston when I moved there for college. It got stolen about three months into my freshman year, so I got another cheapo used mountain bike and painted it maroon with white, gold, and silver splatters on it, Jackson Pollock style, so nobody would want to steal it. Eventually, a contemporary art loving bike thief absconded with that one too. Then I bought my current bike, a silver Trek 8300. It was the bottom of the line about 8 years ago when I bought it, but is still going strong with very little maintenance aside from the occasional tuneup. I am a big fan of Trek!
My bike commuting has ebbed and flowed over the years depending on where I lived, where I worked, and whether I had access to a car or not. I used to share a car with an ex-boyfriend and became somewhat dependent on having it. When we broke up, I decided to get a new car, but it was spring so I decided to wait until fall and bike or take public transportation for the summer. By the time fall came around, I didn’t want a car at all. I was saving money, getting exercise, and feeling MUCH less stressed out than when I drove in the city!
Plus, I discovered Zipcar, an awesome car-sharing program in Boston and many other major cities. So I could still grab a car, by the hour or the day, on the relatively rare occasion that I really needed one. This was the key to living car-free, which I’ve done for the past 4 years. Biking is still my first choice for getting around, so long as there is no snow or ice on the ground.
What’s the best thing about seeing the country by bike?
I love going at a pace that allows you (or rather, forces you) to truly take everything in, seeing all sorts of small towns and country backroads that you’d never pass through if you stayed on the freeway. I love having the freedom to meander around if I see an interesting sign, or if someone I chat with in a roadside convenience store recommends something. I love it when people are curious when seeing my bike loaded up with the panniers, tent, and sleeping bag. It’s fun seeing the expressions on their faces when I tell them what I’m doing.
What’s the biggest challenge of cross-country touring?
- Finding places to camp. Mostly I’ve camped in legitimate campgrounds, but sometimes you’re either at the mercy of people letting you camp on their lawns, or you take your chances sneaking off into the woods or a cornfield.
- Weather. It’s just depressing when it’s cold and wet and you are outside for 23 out of every 24 hours.
- Flat tires. I had a spate of flat tires for a week or so. I don’t know what kind of tires they put on my bike to begin with, but there came a point when they just got worn out and I was getting flats all the time. I just got new Continentals which a few people have recommended, and so far no problems.
- Loneliness. I’ve only felt lonely a few times, which is kind of amazing. Keeping a blog and hearing from people on a regular basis has helped a lot, and I’m the kind of person who enjoys solitude. If you aren’t, I’d definitely recommend going with a buddy.
What advice would you give to other women interested in touring by bike?
Just try it! This is my first bike touring trip ever. Before this, I’d never ridden more than 25 miles in a day, and I’d only done that a handful of times. If you do not want to take such a huge plunge, try to borrow some panniers and just go off for a long weekend.
And if you are inspired to go solo, do not listen to the myriad of people who will tell you that you should not go alone as a single woman. My reasoning is that I’m just as likely, if not more, to be abducted or hit by a car riding around Boston as I am riding across the country. So if you are itching to explore the world by bike, do it!